FDNY CHIEF CAUGHT IN A SWITCH: Veteran Fire Chief Michael Gala is suing the department over what he claims was its revocation of a promotion he'd been promised to Assistant Chief of Department after he was belatedly told he would have to renounce controversial letters to the editor published in this newspaper more than a decade ago and he refused. 

Fifteen years ago, this newspaper published a letter from a Fire Captain taking sharp issue with a Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice's punishing Transport Workers Union Local 100 and its president for a strike the previous December with sanctions so severe that the author called them "a clear message" to organized labor that he would "try to break any union on behalf of this city or the MTA."

The letter by Capt. Michael F. Gala Jr. continued that Justice Theodore Jones's "decisions to jail TWU President Roger Toussaint, remove automatic dues check-off and fine the union $2.5 million will have far-reaching effects in the union world. Everyone who hates the TWU or labor in general should be ecstatic about these heavy-handed fines."

It went on to ask why, if Mr. Toussaint and the union were being treated so harshly for violating the Taylor Law's prohibition against strikes by public employees in New York, there were no "sanctions and fines under the Taylor Law against the city or MTA for failing to bargain in good faith and in a timely manner?"

The language was characteristic of Captain Gala: blunt and pungent. He wasn't the most-frequent correspondent on this newspaper's letters pages, but his writing tended to be memorable, including some blistering and scathingly funny critiques in previous years of his then-boss, Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Not So Easy to Pigeonhole

His favorite subject in the letters concerned upholding the merit system in the Fire Department. But Mr. Gala's readiness to criticize what he considered draconian penalties against a union leader who was both black and militant, and to take bites out of a Mayor not exactly known for racial sensitivity made clear that while politically conservative, he would defy ideological typecasting when it came to matters of principle.

That's why, notwithstanding the Feb. 21 front-page headline in the Daily News branding him a "RAGING BULL" who was suing "for not getting promotion after race rants," it would be a mistake to jump to easy, and lazy, conclusions about Mr. Gala.

His lawsuit alleges he was denied a promotion to Assistant Chief of Department because he would not renounce letters written more than a dozen years ago taking issue with the Vulcan Society's position on speeding integration of the Firefighter ranks. 

Attorney Jim Walden's brief called that "a textbook First Amendment violation. Even if one disagrees with Plaintiff's statements from years ago regarding the FDNY's hiring standards—a subject of intense public debate and litigationthere can be no disagreement about their status as protected speech. It is a foundational principle of our democracy that a government employee may not take adverse action (including denial of a promotion) against an 'employee on a basis that infringes that employee's constitutionally protected interest in freedom of speech.'"

In its court response, the city stated that Mr. Gala's letters, in which he criticized several leaders of the Vulcan Society for pressing remedies for the lack of black Firefighters that he argued would weaken hiring standards, were "racially divisive and inconsistent with FDNY policy."

Adhered to Then-Policy

The letters could be viewed as racially divisive, though not racist. But as Mr. Walden's brief noted, they included statements "opposing controversial efforts to modify the FDNY's hiring process--efforts which the City and the FDNY themselves opposed at the time..."

The story in The News quoted from two of them: one written in 2007, the other in 2008 (the article put the second one in 2011, perhaps because in this newspaper's archive, it was listed as being updated in that year).

The 2007 letter took issue with then-Vulcan Society President John Coombs's argument in a Daily News op-ed that a candidate who scored 80 or 90 on the Firefighter exam might be better-qualified than one who got 100. Expressing a view shared by some other FDNY commanders that the test was too easy, Mr. Gala, who by then had been promoted to Battalion Chief, wrote, "Wake up, John. The candidate who scores a 90 on a basic comprehension exam is not the best candidate, and the one who scores an 80 is a borderline idiot."

He went from salty to gratuitous in addressing the fact that only 3 percent of Firefighters were black, saying in his closing paragraph that "a recent survey of music shows that among rappers, 99 percent are males and 97 percent are black. Where's the justice?"

What that comparison didn't consider was that there was no history of excluding whites from any portion of the music industry. That was not the case in the Fire Department, where as recently as 1987the year Mr. Gala joined the departmentthere were still fire companies that deployed a "black bed"one reserved for African-American firefighters who were detailed to their firehouse for the night, a practice that was as idiotic as it was racist.

Third Man Into Feud

The 2008 letter interjected Chief Gala into a battle of epistles in this newspaper between Deputy Chief Paul Mannixthe most-outspoken white FDNY official about maintaining hiring standardsand Battalion Chief Delbert Coward, director of the northeast region of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters.

Mr. Gala wrote that Chief Coward had joined Mr. Coombs and former Vulcan President Paul Washington in asserting that the Fire Department "failed the citizens of this city, as hard as they tried to diversify," and that Mr. Coward turned his fire against Chief Mannix when he dared to disagree with that premise.

"If Chief Coward wants someone to say it straight and in uncomplicated English, I will," Mr. Gala continued. "If you are a black firefighter in this department and you have an opinion, then speak up, brother. If you are a female firefighter, then you may speak up as well. However, if you are a white male firefighter, keep your bigoted, racist opinions to yourself."

He went on to write, "I have also spoken out in this paper about the merit system and have been called both a bigot and a racist for expressing those opinions. God forbid someone started an FDNY white firefighters association. Imagine the field day the race-baiters would have with that.

"I am tired of listening to black and female firefighters who have earned their positions in this department or who have risen through the ranks on their own merits and yet condemn the same system that facilitated that rise. Chief Coward has excelled at one entrance exam and three promotional exams to attain his current position. And he is well-respected for it."

Once again, Chief Gala delivered the money quote in his closing paragraph, writing, "The frenzy to diversify this department (and only this department) at any cost will lead to its future ruination."

Too Narrow a Perspective

If there was a flaw in his arguments, aside from that overheated conclusion, it was in Chief Gala's failure to understand that black and female firefighters who had risen through the ranks might take pride in their advancements yet still be angry at obstacles placed in their path along the way that they perceived were based on their color or gender.

After a scuffle in 1986 between a white male firefighter and a black female colleague who had objected to the posting on their Brooklyn firehouse's bulletin board of another letter to this newspaper questioning the fitness of women to do the job, a Firefighter in a Manhattan firehouse contended that the woman, Ella McNair, had overreacted. He said he had gone through the same kind of hazing she complained about when he came into the department a few years earlier, complete with "stupid pranks" and ethnic slurs, but believed that was a key component of building toughness in rookies.

It didn't seem to occur to him that as a single mother, Ms. McNair was under enough stress between home and work life that pranks weren't that amusing to her, particularly when one of themthe dumping of excrement into her work boots, was the kind of sick behavior that wouldn't have been tolerated by other firefighters if she were a white male. And unlike the male firefighter, who through the presence of other Italians in his firehouse knew that the slurs he endured should be rolled with, Ms. McNair as a black woman was isolated on two fronts.

At the time of the 2008 letters exchange between Chief Gala and Chief Cowardwho three months later hit back with this response: "I will be an activist as long as the malignantly self-righteous seek to infect the air with divisive disinformation, baseless accusations and propaganda"tensions were particularly high over the hiring issue.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis was hearing testimony on the lawsuit against the Firefighter exam that had been brought by the Vulcans and subsequently joined by the U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush.   

Went Beyond Original Case

It was no surprise that the Brooklyn Judge in July 2009 tossed the results of the 1999 and 2002 written exams because they were found to have included questions that went beyond the intelligence level needed to perform a Firefighter's job. Mr. Gala and top FDNY officials could contend all they wanted that the tests weren't particularly hard, but Judge Garaufis was applying an established legal standard in nullifying those tests.

He took it a step further, though, when he also threw out the 2007 test for the jobwhich hadn't been part of the original lawsuitbecause while blacks passed that test in proportion to the percentage of them who took it, many were clumped toward the bottom of the eligible list and therefore less likely to be hired.

Because the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg went beyond what his predecessor had done to ensure that the test was fair and conducted a far-more-extensive recruiting drive (more than double the number of black candidates took that test than competed on the 2002 one) to ensure a better turnout of minority candidates, the perception was that he had gone further than he should have, a product of anger at what he described as a Fire Department that had been "a stubborn bastion of white, male privilege."

By then, Chief Gala wasn't writing letters to the editor: he had called one day to say that he had been moved to a position at headquartersChief of Personnelin which he could not express himself, since his inside role could raise questions as to whether he was merely expressing his own opinions rather than those of the FDNY.

But he continued to figure into the case, which had moved to a phase in which the Judge had appointed a special master, Mary Jo White, to devise remedies for the past bias, even as the Bloomberg administration appealed his ruling.

In August 2011, two court hearings were dominated by the role of the department's Personnel Review Board, on which Chief Gala was one of eight members, in the review process for candidates for Firefighter whose past brushes with the law normally would have been enough to disqualify them from consideration.

Friends in High Places

During the first hearing, there was testimony that applicants accused of domestic abuse and cited multiple times for drunk driving would sometimes wind up being hired based on support from department officers who knew them. Those reviews were conducted in secrecy, with no obligation to report which FDNY officials had exerted influence on behalf of candidates, and  those who were disqualified had no way to find out the reasons or appeal. 

Testimony, including that of Deputy Commissioner for Administration Doug White, one of two black members of the PRB, established that among those interceding on behalf of candidates with blemishes on their records were officials of the Vulcan Society. But it was acknowledged that with 89 percent of the uniformed force consisting of white males, candidates from that demographic were the ones most likely to know someone of influence in the department who could put in a good word for them. It also didn't hurt that 75 percent of the PRB members were white, and one of the two who wasn't described herself as half-white.

One white PRB member, Patricia Kavaler, stated in a deposition that it was common for top officials of both the FDNY and its unions to speak up on behalf of relatives seeking an equalizer against their troubled pasts. The most-egregious case, she wrote, involved a domestic-violence arrest in which a department member offered in the candidate's behalf this testimonial: "He beat his wife, but his wife took him back so he shouldn't be considered a wife-beater...He still could be a good Firefighter."

This kind of testimony punctured the picture long offered by top FDNY officials, as well as activists like Chiefs Gala and Mannix, of the Firefighter hiring process as a true meritocracy. The "ruination" of the FDNY Mr. Gala had warned about if standards were compromised wasn't lurking around the corner if the testing process was significantly alteredit had already seeped in via the special treatment for those whose past criminal behavior was ignored.

Mr. Gala's son, Robert, had become an Emergency Medical Technicianan easier path to Firefighter jobs since it allowed candidates to take a promotion exam rather than competing against tens of thousands of job-seekers on the open test. But he got into trouble for a series of transgressions, several of which involved impersonating a police officer, and it became a personally painful humbling for the man who by then had become Deputy Assistant Chief of Operations when Robert was fired, with some colleagues questioning why he hadn't forced his son to resign before it came to that.

Job Came With Condition

But his court papers state that last May, Chief of Department John Sudnik, the FDNY's top uniformed officer, told him he would be promoted to Assistant Chief of Department. But after this was confirmed, Chief Gala said he was told that he would have to renounce the sentiments expressed in the letters written 12 to 15 years before that, and would have to send an emailed statement to the Fire Commissioner saying, "I am not the same man I was."

He declined to go that far. His court papers state that while Chief Gala "was willing to clarify in writing that he deeply valued diversity and never intended his letters to offend anyone, he declined to retract his prior statements." 

Mr. Walden's court brief stated, "When the promotion list was circulated a few days later, Plaintiff's name had been removed. Subsequently, Chief Sudnik advised him that his refusal to issue the retraction was the basis on which the promotion decision had been reversed by Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro."

He went on to note that Chief Gala "helped lead the overhaul of the FDNY's hiring process in order to make it fairer and more job-related...It produced a revamped entrance exam that he is immensely proud of, as it addressed disparate-impact concerns without sacrificing hiring standards." And the special master overseeing the process, Ms. White, thanked him by name for his efforts in gaining union cooperation in preparing the exam "and overall assistance in scheduling and coordinating the test administration sessions."

The brief went on to note that top department officials who knew of the content of the letters to the editor he had written more than a decade ago "have repeatedly promoted Plaintiff despite being fully aware of their content."

Who Pulled the Switch?

Until now. Since Mr. Nigro was one of those officials who would have been fully aware of the letters, it seems unlikely that he would have let word filter down of the promotion, then subsequently insisted that Chief Gala renounce his past views. It would have been far smarter, and less likely to cost the city a bundle in court while embarrassing the department, to have floated a possible promotion on the condition he eat his old words in a single package.

Captain Washington said in a Feb. 25 phone interview about the condition attached to the promotion, "I don't know why this would have been an issue after he was already promoted twice" in recent years. "He became a staff chief and then a two-star chief. He appeared in enough department ceremonies that I wouldn't say he was the face of the Fire Department, but he was one of the faces."  

That assessment could further indicate that the person behind the late-hour condition attached was Mayor de Blasio, based on his proven clumsiness in handling delicate personnel changes and a love of free speech that he's demonstrated through the numerous opportunities he's provided reporters to exercise their First Amendment rights by filing Freedom of Information Law requests for material that could embarrass him.

Unlike Chief Gala, who warts and all is someone who cares deeply about the Fire Department, the Mayor worries more about perception than principles. 

He was right when he interjected himself into an NYPD personnel decision to ensure that Daniel Pantaleo was fired for his role in the death of Eric Garner rather than allowing him to retire. He was wrong if he intervened here to try to extract a pound of flesh from Chief Gala to protect his own posterior.

We'll get closer to the truth if the city allows this case to go to trial.       

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