A 27-year-old African-American rookie Firefighter has filed a Federal lawsuit alleging that he was the victim of a sexual assault by four naked Firefighters who held him against his will on his first day on the job at Ladder 35/Engine 40 near Lincoln Center.
That allegation is among dozens made in the 38-page Federal discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed last month in Manhattan, chronicling events that played out over 18 months and involved three different firehouses.
‘Placed Testicles on Head’
Firefighter Gordon Springs charged that on May 4, 2015, he and three other probationary Firefighters were summoned to the firehouse gym, where he was forcibly detained when he tried to leave. He was then ordered to lie down on a weight-lifting bench, and one Firefighter, Pedro Aristy, allegedly “placed his testicles onto the plaintiff’s head.” Mr. Springs asserted he subsequently “was also forced to watch other acts of sexual harassment.”
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, Lieut. Edward Vreeland, Charles Swift and Peter Grillo. Mr. Swift and Mr. Grillo were accused of allegedly participating in the gym incident. The identity of the fourth Firefighter who allegedly took part was not disclosed.
In November of 2016 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a finding of reasonable cause that Mr. Springs had been the victim of sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
Not long after the alleged sexual assault the complaint charged, Mr. Aristy taunted Mr. Springs about his race and his inability to do anything about it. “I could punch you in the face and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you called EEO, everyone in the firehouse would keep their mouth shut and EEO wouldn’t find anything. Then, after everyone realized you called EEO, the real fun would begin,” Mr. Aristy is alleged to have said.
Cover-Up by Lieutenant?
In June 2015, the court papers say that Mr. Springs was ordered to climb the brass pole inside the firehouse that Firefighters use to respond from their quarters to a fire call. Once at the top of the pole, the African-American Firefighter was allegedly doused with several buckets of water and bread crumbs, causing him to lose his grip, slide and fall, injuring his back.
The complaint alleged that even though Lieutenant Vreeland witnessed the aftermath and was told about it by Mr. Springs, he “offered no commentary and instead filled out a medical form for plaintiff Springs’ ankle.”
According to Mr. Springs’ attorney, Paul Liggieri, his client’s getting hired was a singular achievement “by a young man whose mother and father had both died, leaving him on the streets homeless.”
“His life began to turn around when he felt a calling to care for his grandmother, who suffered from severe dementia,” Mr. Liggieri said in a phone interview. “He looked to the FDNY to become his family.”
Targeted for Complaining
The lawsuit alleges Mr. Springs was ostracized and targeted for reprisals for registering a complaint with the FDNY’s EEO office, including having his locker vandalized and his uniform stabbed and shredded. “The above are just a few examples of the severe and pervasive hostile work environment that the defendants forced the plaintiff to endure on account of making a protected complaint regarding sexual harassment and racial discrimination,” according to the court papers.
He filed the complaint with the FDNY EEO office Oct. 2, 2015.
"The Department aggressively investigated this incident, punished those involved, and will continue to mete out appropriate discipline to anyone who violates our anti-hazing policy,” the FDNY said in a statement.
Department sources confirmed that seven people were disciplined: two officers and five Firefighters. Mr. Aristy, whom the sources described as the “the primary offender,” was docked 45 days’ pay, roughly equivalent to $10,000, and was compelled to sign a termination stipulation that required he accept immediate firing for any new infractions.
The city’s Corporation Counsel’s Office said that the matter was under review. The Uniformed Firefighters Association said in a statement it was “against UFA policy to comment on civil-litigation matters between members,” but maintained the defendants in Mr. Springs’ case should be provided legal representation by the city but that “if the city refuses, the UFA will then consider its options.”
The Uniformed Fire Officers Association had no comment.
Damning Kitchen Tape
Earlier this month, the surfacing of a tape of a covertly recorded conversation held in December 2015 in Ladder 35/Engine 40’s kitchen captured officers telling the implicated Firefighters to come clean during the FDNY’s internal investigation. According to the New York Post, which first reported the existence of the tape, a Lieutenant, a Captain and a Chief were all on hand and warned the Firefighters that if accounts of their behavior got traction in the media, they would likely lose their jobs, with one boss asserting that what they were accused of crossed the line from hazing to criminal sexual assault.
The FDNY had no comment on the tape.
Sources contended that the department believed the alleged conduct was so egregious that it sought an outside review by the Department of Investigation. The FDNY would not confirm that move, and in a statement DOI said it was “aware of the matter but declines further comment.”
Mr. Liggieri said in a phone interview that the tapes made clear that the FDNY’s description of what happened as “hazing” was a whitewash of “a criminal sexual assault.” As for DOI’s role in the probe, he said that neither he nor his client had ever heard from its staff. “For the oldest investigative agency in the city, you would think one of the first things they would do would be to interview the complainant,” he said.
The lawyer said his client is currently assigned to Ladder 21. “To his credit, he’s still on the job but since filing the complaint, his anxiety has certainly risen,” he said.
Councilman Andy King said in a phone interview that the court filings and the subsequent news stories underscored the need to transform the internal culture of the FDNY even as it tries to diversify its ranks.
“I was appalled and really angered by what is alleged to have gone on here, and no one is really talking about it,” he said. “If this was a woman being victimized this way, you would have people picketing and this city would be upside-down with outrage.”
“The Firefighters should be fired and this young man should be compensated,” the Councilman said. “We have got to change the culture in that organization. I wish he had gone to the cops.”
UWF: Need Harder Line
Sarinya Srisakul, president of the United Women Firefighters, believes the FDNY has to take a harder line in these kinds of cases where a member, at considerable risk of reprisal, comes forward with credible allegations. “In the case of one of my Firefighter members, nothing was done” after she filed a complaint, said Ms. Srisakul in a phone interview. “She had to keep working with her harassers and nothing happened to any of the firefighters.”
Department sources said that the account of Mr. Springs could not be corroborated, so the allegations amounted to a “he-said, she- said” standoff. But they also conceded that there were some issues with the management at the Upper West Side firehouse, with some key officers having been detailed out, “so that we had the inmates running the asylum.”