Fire district bosses bungle their duties

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Allegations that three Spring Hill Fire Rescue District firefighters raped a Hernando County woman while at a union convention in Seminole County are alarming.

But equally as upsetting as the details of that night in June is the information now emerging about how the case was handled _ make that mishandled _ by fire district bosses and the Altamonte Springs Police Department. It’s a troubling mixture of inaction and reaction for which district taxpayers should demand explanations.

Although it has not been determined whether charges are warranted, the firefighters’ admissions to police that they took turns having sex with a woman who was drunk are reason enough to judge their actions as contemptible.

Regardless of whether the sex was forced or consensual, it has cast a pall, not only over the personal and professional reputations of the firefighters, but over an agency that requires the absolute trust of the people who rely on it for competent and confidential emergency services.

The police officer compromised his investigation from the outset by characterizing the alleged victim’s complaint as suspect because he found inconsistencies in her statements and because she waited 24 days to file a complaint.

He then offered firefighters a courtesy not afforded most people who are accused of a crime: He called their boss, Fire Chief J.J. Morrison, to schedule private interviews with firefighters John Ferriero, Edward Falk and Tom White. Morrison accommodated that request.

The chief also decided not to place the men on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, and consulted at least two fire commissioners, Robert Kanner and Jeff Hollander.

Fire Commissioner Tommy Marasciullo also found out, and all three commissioners sanctioned Morrison’s attempt to conceal the information and joined him in discounting the veracity of the alleged victim’s story.

But two of the commissioners also went a step further and cast aspersions on her character. In particular, Marasciullo displayed remarkable insensitivity when he said to the Times “I think this was a groupie firefighter girl who went over there to have a good time. You know, the lonely hearts club band type stuff.”

Setting aside the unfeeling sexism that is inherent in those comments, Marasciullo puts the fire commission in a vulnerable position if this case ever winds up in civil court. He and Kanner should have kept their opinions to themselves, at least until the case was resolved.

Bowing to the public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to the scandal, Morrison announced Monday that he has placed the three firefighters on paid administrative leave until the Seminole County State Attorney’s Office reviews the case.

He should have done that the day he was notified of the charges, instead of rationalizing that because they were attending a union function, they were not representing the fire district. Of course they were, and still are because of Ferriero’s and Falk’s leadership positions in the union.

By failing to take immediate and decisive action, Morrison and the fire commissioners who helped him try to cover up the incident placed loyalty to their employees and friends above their responsibility to the public they are sworn to serve. It raises issues of respectability and trust, and demonstrates incredibly flawed judgment.