Deputy Fire Chief Paul Mannix, the outspoken, longtime head of the anti-affirmative-action group Merit Matters, permanently disbanded the organization July 23 after being docked 50 days’ pay for breaking FDNY rules. The violations included “bringing reproach or reflecting discredit upon the department.”
A department order by Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro announced that the Chief had made “statements that are disruptive to the operations of the department or that would disclose confidential information” and violated the oath of office. It warned other members to avoid leaking private information, particularly firefighters’ medical or performance records.
Chief Mannix published a conciliatory message on his blog July 23, writing, “Though my intentions as the leader of Merit Matters were good, the consequences of some of [the] movement’s efforts were damaging to the department and in the end to myself. I sincerely wish to play a part in healing the wounds that were created and helping the department become not only more diverse and inclusive, but stronger than ever.”
Mr. Mannix was the leading voice of opposition to the Federal hiring-discrimination suit that Mayor de Blasio settled for $98 million in March 2014. Hundreds of Merit Matters supporters filled the Judge’s courtroom or sent in written objections over the priority hiring and back pay awarded to black and Latino Firefighter candidates in that case.
But the charges against the Deputy Chief were reportedly about news stories, not lawsuits. For months, the FDNY has been investigating a series of leaks to the press about firefighter performance. Those revelations, published in the New York Post, have targeted women and people of color. They included test results and injuries sustained in the Fire Academy, as well as drug tests failed by established firefighters. High-level officers have been investigated in the probe.
A spokesman for the Fire Department declined to say for what specific actions Mr. Mannix was sanctioned.
Until a year or two ago, Mr. Mannix frequently spoke in public forums about what he saw as a watering-down of FDNY standards to give advantages to women and people of color. But he and Merit Matters fell silent, as the department under then-Commissioner Salvatore Cassano began bearing down hard to find the source of the leaks. Mr. Cassano eventually subpoenaed the phone records of several firefighters and officers, prompting a protest by the Uniformed Firefighters Association and civil-rights attorney Ron Kuby.
In May, the longtime head of the Fire Academy fitness department, Lieut. Michael Cacciola, and a deputy were removed from their posts. Some members speculated that they were held accountable for leaks coming from that department, though the Commissioner later denied it in an interview with THE CHIEF-LEADER.
In April, court documents related to an investigation of Battalion Chief Rory Houton revealed information that seems to point to Mr. Mannix being involved in the leaks. Fire officials believed Chief Houton had spoken to the media about struggling probies, and the officer filed suit to block a subpoena of his phone records.
In his ruling against Mr. Houton, Judge David I. Schmidt described a 2013 leak about Probationary Firefighter Wendy Tapia, who had difficulties in the Academy.
An Academy trainer admitted in a departmental interview to speaking with a reporter about Ms. Tapia “at the behest of an FDNY officer (Officer X),” the Judge wrote. Officer X founded an advocacy group that opposed the FDNY’s diversity efforts, he said.
Avoided Internal Trial
Officer X admitted that he’d spoken to Chief Houton about two other firefighters, then-probie Trilain Smith, who posted questionable content on social media, and Lieut. Daniel Sterling. The Post reported that Mr. Sterling, who headed a diversity and recruitment program, was placed on modified duty in 2013 after testing positive for marijuana.
Chief Mannix, a 27-year veteran, accepted the charges to avoid an administrative trial. He wrote on the Merit Matters blog that he disbanded the organization voluntarily, as a “sign of good faith,” and was not asked to do so by Commissioner Nigro. He pledged to remove the website within five days.
In his final blog post, Chief Mannix noted that Merit Matters counted women and minorities among its members.
“We strongly supported diversity in the Department, but we did disagree about how best to accomplish that goal,” he wrote. “During the often-public debate that ensued, some things were said and done that harmed the unity of the Fire Department. Individual firefighters got caught in the cross-fire when personal information was made known to the press. And the mission of diversifying the FDNY was compromised.”
Don’t Do This Again
He added: “Above all, I wish to discourage others from engaging in behavior, particularly personal attacks in the media, that undermines the camaraderie so important to effective firefighting.”
Mr. Mannix may have been afraid for his job if his case went before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. In February, Firefighter Thomas Buttaro was fired after an administrative trial, for wearing Merit Matters t-shirts around the firehouse and clashing verbally with a member of the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters. Department attorneys, however, asserted that Mr. Buttaro had disobeyed a direct order from his Captain, former Vulcan Society President Paul Washington, to stop wearing the shirts.
Vulcan President Regina Wilson in a phone interview last week applauded the end of Merit Matters.
“Well, I think it’s long overdue,” she said. “I think Merit Matters might have tried to believe that they have the best intentions to diversify and be inclusive in this department, but they haven’t been and all of their efforts have been harmful.
“They never really were champions for people whose merit really needed to matter,” she added. “They never spoke out for people who were treated unfairly by the department...I think them disbanding and not being public anymore is probably one of the best things that happened.”
United Women Firefighters President Sarinya Srisakul portrayed this as a potential turning point.
“The culture of bullying and sexism is the root of many if not all of the women firefighters’ problems in the FDNY,” she said. “Commissioner Nigro’s punishment of the ex-leader of the movement behind anti-diversity measures is important to show that the FDNY rejects hate speech and discrimination. We count on the rank and file getting the message so we can all move forward in having a fair and equitable FDNY.”
Mr. Mannix did not respond to a request for comment. But the department order may have further-reaching effects than just deterring firefighters from talking about their poorly-performing comrades. It reminds members to avoid talking publicly about a wide variety of issues, including department policies that haven’t been finalized, legal proceedings, investigations, and “other information protected from disclosure by law.”