- Wayne Washington Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Division Chief Chris Hoch was reprimanded earlier this year for violating county policy after a female subordinate complained in 2015 that he made inappropriate sexual comments about her and repeated “rumors” she was having sex with her supervisor, documents obtained by The Palm Beach Post show.
Sixteen months after the initial complaint was made, an internal investigation found in February that Hoch, described in a county document as the third highest ranking official in Fire Rescue, had violated county policy against discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace. Besides being issued the reprimand on March 15, Hoch was required to “attend training related to employee interaction and personal conduct,” documents obtained by The Palm Beach Post show.
The officer who complained about Hoch, Capt. Amanda Vomero, and her supervisor, Administration Division Chief Joey Cooper, have since both sued the county, painting a picture of a department where racism, sexual harassment and retaliation is casual and rampant.
Vomero’s suit, filed Dec. 14, claims that county officials did nothing to stop Hoch’s and other officials’ harassment of her or their discrimination and retaliation against her after her Oct. 7, 2015 complaint that Hoch was sexually harassing her by taunting her in his office, telling her “rumor is that you are” having sex with Cooper and adding that he was “a little offended” that she wouldn’t have sex with him.
Cooper’s lawsuit, filed May 26, is a whistle-blower suit claiming Fire Rescue officials, including Department Chief Jeff Collins, retaliated against him for participating in the Office of Equal Opportunity investigation of Vomero’s complaint against Hoch by giving a statement in support of Vomero.
“After that, (Cooper) was harassed and retaliated against by Fire Chief Collins, who interfered or attempted to do so, in investigations (Cooper) attempted to conduct,” Cooper’s lawsuit alleges. The suit notes that Cooper is a management level employee equal in rank to Hoch.
Through Fire Rescue’s spokesman, Collins declined comment on Cooper’s allegations. Hoch denied all of the allegations against him.
In his comments to The Palm Beach Post, Hoch pointed to an investigation conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found that it was “unable to conclude” that the allegations against him amounted to violations of federal law.
The EEOC, however, also said: “This does not certify that the respondent is in compliance with the statutes.”
The county’s internal investigative report, dated Feb. 15, states that Hoch “admits repeating sexually oriented rumors about the female officer and other witnesses suggest that it is not unusual for rumors to circulate particularly when male and female staff work together. These incidents individually will not likely constitute sexual harassment. However, collectively with the additional incidents of harassing and retaliatory behavior there is sufficient information to conclude that an offensive work environment exists within Fire Rescue.”
The report also substantiated allegations of retaliation by Hoch, including:
And of the department, the report said, “all of the substantiated discriminatory and retaliatory behavior occurred within the administrative office suite and involved high ranking administration officers.”
On March 15, Hoch signed a form notifying him that he was in violation of county operational procedure I-60, which prohibits harassment, discrimination and retaliation in the workplace and requires employees to report violations. That form does include the details of how Hoch violated the policy, which were included only in the separate internal investigative report.
“I am signing this violation out of respect to my chief officers,” Hoch wrote. “I still have not received any written documentation from HR concerning what I have been accused of violating after several requests from my attorney over the past year and a half. I reserve the right to add an additional supplement to this document from either my attorney or myself at a future date. By signing this document it does not mean I understand or agree with what I have been accused of violating.”
Hoch is a 20-year employee, rising from a firefighter earning $9.15 per hour in 1997 to operations division chief earning $157,298 per year in 2014, according to his personnel file, which The Post obtained through a public records request.
As operations division chief, Hoch is in charge of the department’s seven firefighting and emergency rescue battalions. He was formerly chief of Battalion 5, which covers the Boca Raton area.
Collins said he believes the captain’s complaints were handled properly and denied the report’s conclusion that a hostile work environment exists in the department. He also said he believes Hoch’s punishment — the reprimand and the training — were sufficient and that no demotion, suspension or termination was warranted.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker said she is aware of the allegations against Hoch. All Fire Rescue staff have recently undergone what she described as “refresher” training on sexual harassment and discrimination.
“There is zero tolerance — zero tolerance — for sexual harassment or discrimination,” she said. “If we find that that is the case, we deal with it swiftly.”
It took repeated requests for The Post to get documents it requested regarding complaints against Hoch.
Initially, the county, relying on records from Fire Rescue, only turned over Hoch’s personnel file, despite the fact that the newspaper requested the personnel file and any information regarding investigations of Hoch.
After a delay and an additional request, the county then supplied documentation of the internal investigation — but omitted Vomero’s original complaint. That document was finally supplied after yet another request.
Some of Hoch’s responses to The Post made reference to other documents that were not given to the newspaper despite its request for Hoch’s personnel file and documents pertaining to investigations of him.
Vomero is one of 17 women in Fire Rescue who have obtained the rank of captain or higher, according to information provided by the county. None are division chiefs.
“Currently, all Division Chiefs are male and historically only men have attained this rank,” the county’s report states.
The county’s internal investigation included allegations that Hoch told others that Vomero, whose job included helping the department recruit women and minorities, recruited minorities because she preferred minority males as sex partners. Cooper is black.
Hoch denied “commenting that the female officer preferred black men as sex partners and insinuating that she focused her recruitment activity toward minority males because of this preference,” the report states.
But Hoch, according to the report, “does admit that he repeated the rumors about the female officer having a relationship with her current supervisor and one with him.”
Hoch, the report states, admitted to excluding the captain from meetings and to “making statements suggesting that he hired several attorneys for representation related to the investigation, intended to discover who filed the complaint against him, and suggested that he would take some adverse action against that person including interfering with (retirement) benefits.”
In an email to The Post, Hoch said, “I have no recollection of making any such statement. It was clear and no secret that I had an attorney since my attorney was present during my interview (with the internal investigator).”
The county’s report said the captain reported that Hoch barred her from “jumping calls” — ride-alongs that allow personnel to get additional training — because of rumors that the two of them were having a sexual relationship.
The report said Hoch admitted to allowing the female officer to jump “four to five calls over several weeks before he abruptly withdrew permission to jump calls based solely on the fact that other staff had questioned whether there was an intimate relationship between them. He also admits later restoring permission to jump calls explaining that he advised the female officer that they could resume jumping calls together because the current rumor was now about her and her supervisor and no longer about the two of them. He stated that he considered it a joke and meant no harm.”
Hoch said the report is inaccurate.
He wrote to The Post: “When I was advised that there was a rumor about the complainant and myself, I advised the complainant that we should not ride together (or jump calls) given there was a false rumor being spread regarding both of us. I told no one else of this rumor ever.”
He added: “A few months later, I was told that the complainant was having an affair with her supervisor. I advised both the complainant and her supervisor that there was a rumor being spread regarding both of them. The two of them were riding together at the time. I never repeated this rumor to anyone else ever.”
The report says the captain and another Fire Rescue officer told a county investigator that Hoch “made the female officer the subject of jokes about weight and the fit of her pants.”
Hoch denied that allegation in an email to The Post and in the county’s report, which states that he “denies the behavior but does admit having a discussion with the female officer about the current skinny jean fashion trend, stating that he may find it difficult to find such jeans in his size. A witness to another incident when the female officer was the subject of jokes about weight and her pants described the exchange as possibly ‘banter’ between the female officer and (Hoch), but did feel the jokes crossed the line.”
Hoch criticized the county’s internal investigator, saying she “only selectively interviewed individuals who were provided by the complainant. I was promoted over two of these individuals when I obtained my current position, bringing into question their impartiality.”
Vomero’s attorney, Alan Aronson, said: “We’re not surprised someone accused of sexual harassment and retaliation would deny the allegations. We would expect nothing less.”
Asked if Hoch’s punishment was sufficient, he said: “I’m not going to comment on the sufficiency of the discipline. All I know is if you look at what’s happening around the country — a senator has resigned, a judge has resigned because of allegations of sexual harassment — if the department felt he was disciplined appropriately, I’m not going to comment on that.”
Hoch said the allegations against him have “caused me much distress.”
Again pointing to the EEOC investigation, he said he will be “especially pleased” to obtain its findings “indicating that the allegations are without merit and unfounded as I am looking forward to clearing my name once and for all.”