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Ex-fire chief ready to collect from Las Vegas

When a former Las Vegas fire official was accused of taking illicit cigarette breaks on city property, it looked like a smoking gun to justify his ouster.

But it wound up sparking an ugly discrimination lawsuit that could burn city taxpayers for $500,000.

On Wednesday the City Council is scheduled to consider authorizing a settlement with Ken Riddle, a former deputy fire chief.

The settlement is the result of an Aug. 10 verdict in which a jury in federal court ordered the city to pay Riddle $365,000 in lost wages and pension benefits and $25,000 in punitive damages.

The proposal includes attorney fees, which Riddle’s lawyer said are less than they could be. Riddle compromised on the amount in exchange for his retirement badge, which the city had withheld.

"The city is actually getting a really good deal," Riddle attorney Mary Chapman said.

The case dates to 2006 when Riddle was fired by former Chief David L. Washington, who in court papers "claimed he encountered continuing problems with (Riddle’s) behavior and job performance."

According to court documents, Washington accused Riddle of repeatedly smoking in his office and in city vehicles, where smoking is prohibited, having unexplained disappearances during the work day and misusing credit cards that belonged to professional organizations.

"After several years of difficulties caused by Riddle’s behavior, the Fire Chief lost all confidence in his integrity and terminated him," Deputy City Attorney Philip Byrnes wrote in court papers. "His consistent disregard of a simple matter such as the city’s smoking policy reflected badly on the Fire Chief and damaged morale in the Department."

The city portrayed Riddle as acting out after the chief’s job he wanted went to Washington.

Washington also accused Riddle of having a gambling problem and drinking to excess at an off-site reception.

But Riddle argued he was fired because he is white and Washington wanted more black employees in top positions.

In a statement to the court, Riddle denied being absent from the job and said he didn’t have a gambling problem. He said he apologized for drinking too much at the reception.

The credit card issue, Riddle said, was a case of mistaking credit and debit cards issued to him by outside professional organizations for his own cards. In each instance Riddle said he discovered and corrected the errors by paying the amounts in question.

Riddle also said he had stopped smoking in his office in 2004 and denied smoking in a city vehicle, saying witness descriptions of someone flicking a cigarette from a department vehicle didn’t match the description of his vehicle.

In addition to denying many of the allegations against him, Riddle laid out his own case to support his claim the dismissal was racially motivated.

"There were multiple witnesses in court that testified as to David Washington’s career-long habit of favoring African-Americans over white candidates," Chapman said.

ACCUSED OF FAVORING BLACK EMPLOYEES

In his statement, Riddle said Washington intervened on behalf of black employees recommended for termination, limited his administrative days off to eight while black employees had no such restrictions and after the firing, replaced him with a black employee who Washington had said "would be a fire chief someday."

Riddle also said that, despite accusations of bad behavior at work, his personnel file is marked by positive performance reviews and regular raises.

"There was not a single negative, derogatory thing in his personnel file. Nothing. Not a single write-up," Chapman said.

Gregory Kamer, a Las Vegas lawyer who specializes in employment law, said the lack of a convincing discipline record probably damaged the city’s case.

Kamer was not involved in the Riddle case.

Kamer said that jurors generally expect employers to track discipline problems with employees and that the lack of a record against Riddle might have caused them to suspect the reasons for the termination given in court were an attempt to justify the firing after the fact.

"The employer has to defend how it took its action," Kamer said. "Without any kind of documentation it doesn’t necessarily look right to a jury that expects some form of progressive discipline."

Although Riddle was fired in 2006 and Washington retired in 2007, Dean Fletcher, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 1285, said morale in the department is "worse now than it was then."

Fletcher, who testified in the Riddle case against the city, accused City Manager Betsy Fretwell of taking a one-sided approach to employee-manager disputes that undermines faith in city leadership.

He cited as evidence of lost faith a union vote of no confidence in current chief Mike Myers, which he called reminiscent of a vote of no confidence in Washington.

In both cases city leaders stuck by their chief.

"They unilaterally accept what one of their supervisors says without ever hearing the other side," Fletcher said.

Fretwell did not respond to requests to comment on the case.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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