FDNY chiefs’ demotions have ripple effect on sex harassment case against ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ fire marshal
One ripple effect of the turmoil gripping top New York City Fire Department chiefs is a delay in the handling of a sex harassment case that may lead the accused fire official to bring a $5 million lawsuit, documents filed with the city show.
A disciplinary case of a fire marshal caught up in the scandal surrounding the 2018 “Motherless Brooklyn” blaze in Harlem that killed a veteran firefighter has been stalled since Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh demoted Assistant Chief Joe Jardin to deputy chief last month.
Jardin was supposed to be the hearing officer over a sexual harassment complaint filed against FDNY Fire Marshal Jonathan Cummings. Since Jardin’s demotion, Cummings case has been left in limbo, his attorney Pete Gleason told the Daily News.
“The FDNY has not told me who the new hearing officer is,” said Gleason.
Cummings allegedly pleasured himself in front of the cleaning woman inside the EMS Academy in Queens on May 30, 2020, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint obtained by the Daily News.
The EEOC interviewed the woman, found her claims to be credible and forwarded the case to the FDNY for further investigation.
Until February, Jardin was the FDNY’s chief of fire prevention. As hearing officer on Cummings’ case, he could have exonerated Cummings or allowed the case to go forward, Gleason said.
“My client fully realizes now that the balanced oversight Chief Jardin would have brought to the process is lost — he will likely be judged by a Kavanagh sycophant,” Gleason said.
Cummings emphatically denies the allegations against him.
Gleason claims that the sexual harassment case against Cummings is linked to the 2018 “Motherless Brooklyn” fire and the charges are an attempt to discredit Cummings for siding with former Fire Marshal Scott Specht instead of his superiors on the cause of the movie set fire that took the life of Firefighter Michael Davidson.
Specht, identified in court papers as the lead fire marshal in the case, believed alterations to the building made by the “Motherless Brooklyn” production company caused the fire. Specht says in legal papers that he suffered retaliation when he disagreed with the department’s finding that a boiler flue sparked the fire.
A federal judge initially threw out Specht’s lawsuit, but his attorneys successfully appealed. The city ultimately settled with Specht for about $210,000, Gleason said.
The FDNY on Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of Davidson’s death.
Cummings has been on administrative duty since the sexual harassment allegations were made. He’s also being sued by the cleaner in state court. A criminal complaint was also filed with the NYPD, but no criminal charges were ever brought, officials said.
If Cummings is found guilty of the charges, he could be fired, said Gleason.
“However corrupt the process, my client is willing to weather the FDNY star chamber, even under threat of termination, if it means shining a light on the cover up of the death of Michael Davidson,” the lawyer said.
Earlier this month, Gleason filed a $5 million notice of claim with the city over Jardin’s removal from Cummings’ case, claiming that the chief’s demotion has “precluded Cummings from a fair hearing.” The notice of claim could be a prelude to an eventual lawsuit against the city.
“Jardin is a well respected chief officer with a reputation of being fair and balanced,” Gleason wrote. “Cummings is now without a fair and impartial hearing officer.”
A high ranking FDNY official shrugged off Gleason’s concerns.
“This happens all the time when chiefs retire,” the high-ranking official said. “It’s still going to be handled by Jardin’s office. It’ll just go to another chief.”
Under FDNY rules, another chief will be assigned to hold a hearing in Cummings’ case. Such hearings are an early step in the department’s disciplinary process, and cases are almost always referred to the FDNY’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials for further investigation and hearings, the high-ranking official added.
Jardin is one of three assistant chiefs Kavanagh demoted who are suing to be reinstated to their prior ranks.
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Their demotions sparked a mass protest by FDNY chiefs who have criticized Kavanagh and asked to be demoted in rank and moved out of FDNY headquarters.
Kavanagh hasn’t signed off on any of the demotion requests and asked the chiefs to hang on for three more months while she “rights the ship,” sources said.
The demoted chiefs on Thursday filed an age discrimination lawsuit against Kavanagh, the FDNY and the city, claiming the fire commissioner targeted them because the chiefs were at or close to 60 years old.
As of last week, the protesting chiefs remained in their positions in the FDNY while Kavanagh builds her executive team, which includes retired FDNY 9/11 hero Joseph Pfeifer, who was named the department’s first deputy commissioner.
Pfeifer’s first day of work was Wednesday, Kavanagh said on NY1.
“The team is in place,” she said Thursday. “There’s no way to get everything we need as the largest fire department in the country done without having your own team. It’s not easy making the tough decisions but I think they are necessary when you come into leadership.”
An email to the FDNY was not immediately returned.