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Law firm says ex-fire chief, officials forced out by ‘civil conspiracy’

Former Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Jeffrey Collins and a pair of other high-ranking officers in the department were forced out of their jobs because of a “civil conspiracy” being carried out by the county government, a lawyer representing the officers said Thursday.

The lawyer provided no details about the nature of that conspiracy, but she did say her firm has given the county notice that it intends to sue on behalf of the former officers.

“Palm Beach County’s treatment of these chiefs is illegal, defamatory and biased,” Sarah Cabarcas-Osman of The Berman Law Group of Boca Raton said during a press conference Thursday. “At the end of the day, the chiefs only seek to make it known that they have done nothing wrong, to protect their families and to be there when that late night call comes in. They are firefighters, and that’s what they do.”

At least three lawsuits have been filed against the county or Fire Rescue by Fire Rescue employees alleging misconduct by department officials, including sexual harassment, assault and retaliation. Two of those lawsuits include allegations against Collins, former Deputy Chief Thomas Tolbert and former Division Chief Chris Hoch.

Three weeks after The Palm Beach Post reported on the allegations of harassment and retaliation at the high levels of Fire Rescue, Collins resigned. That resignation was soon followed by the resignation of Tolbert and the firing of Hoch.

Cabarcas-Osman said the two who resigned were pressured to quit. She defended how the men handled allegations of harassment and retaliation and suggested that county executives forced the men out of their jobs because they did not want the public to know that the chiefs had actually acted to stop harassment.

“But the county clearly wanted the chiefs to hide what they saw as inappropriate,” Cabarcas-Osman said. “We intend to root out the truth through every available remedy, including taking sworn statements under oath and on video of those responsible for these injustices.”

Cabarcas-Osman said her firm will depose County Administrator Verdenia Baker and Assistant County Administrator Nancy Bolton, who oversees Fire Rescue and reports to Baker. Cabarcas-Osman said her firm will also depose Human Resources Director Wayne Condry; Karen Thompson, who conducted a county review of harassment allegations against Hoch; and Capt. Amanda Vomero, whose lawsuit against the county and Fire Rescue alleges that Hoch harassed and ridiculed her and that Tolbert joined in that ridicule.

“The depositions will be public record, and the residents of Palm Beach County will find the truth about the injustice that occurred,” Cabarcas-Osman said. “We believe the depositions will unravel, unfortunately, a poorly executed civil conspiracy to fire these chiefs. And, unfortunately, based on our preliminary investigations, expect there to be additional uncovered which will also astonish the public. The chiefs were not simply terminated for no cause. Their termination was protectural, retaliatory and unlawful.”

Cabarcas-Osman said the chiefs “followed all county procedures and responded to any allegations of unlawful sexual behavior promptly and decisively. In fact, it is apparent that these responses to inappropriate sexual behavior seems to have gotten them fired.”

Baker did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. She has previously denied Collins’ claim that she pressured him to quit to further a political agenda.

Neither Baker nor any other county official has said publicly why the county accepted the resignations of Collins and Tolbert. Interim Fire Rescue Chief Michael Mackey, appointed to that position the day Collins resigned, gave Hoch no reason why he was being fired. The termination letter he wrote to Hoch merely makes clear that he was being fired.

Hoch, Tolbert and Collins are at-will employees, meaning they can be fired at the will of their employer. Chief Assistant County Attorney David Ottey underscored that point in an email to one of Hoch’s lawyers, who sought a reason for the division chief’s termination.

“Your client, Mr. Hoch, was an at-will employee, so there is no legal requirement that he be provided a reason for his termination,” Ottey wrote. “Hence, none was given.”

Ottey then underscored that “there have been NO allegations made against him by the county.”

Hoch, Tolbert and Collins had each reached high levels of command at Fire Rescue after decades of experience in the department. Hoch was division chief of operations. Tolbert was further up the chain of command, serving as one of two deputy chiefs under Collins.

Mackey has turned the page on their leadership, taking over for Collins and naming replacements for Hoch and Tolbert.

Each former officer wants his old job back, Cabarcas-Osman said, adding that her firm has provided written notice to the county of its intent to file suit.

The Post has requested a copy of that notice, but the county has not provided it, saying it is exempt from the public records law because it is part of an ongoing lawsuit.

Cabarcas-Osman left open the possibility of providing the media with a copy of notice her firm gave the county, though she said her clients are hoping a suit won’t be necessary.

“We would like to see if we could settle this in an amicable way,” she said.

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