The Fire Lines - April 2014
Fire Commissioner Cassano Abuses Power to Stifle First Amendment Rights
The lengths to which the current FDNY administration will go, to punish those who dare to legitimately criticize its policies, is startling.
Nothing better illustrates this fact then the recent treatment of Firefighter Elizabeth Osgood of Engine 47.
On November 10, 2013, New York Post reporter Susan Edelman wrote an article describing the manner in which a female probationary firefighter had received special treatment in order to allow her to complete the training requirements of the Fire Academy.
The article reported that the candidate had actually been allowed to graduate from the Academy and be assigned to an Engine Company in Queens, even though she had failed to complete the one and one-half mile run in the requisite 12 minutes.
It also reported that this candidate, after graduation still failed the running test five more times.
The article went on to say that the candidate had initially suffered a foot injury and then had an upper respiratory problem, which affected her ability to complete the run in the required minimum time.
Finally, the article quoted an anonymous female firefighter’s comments, expressing her frustration that the candidate had received such special treatment.
The anonymous firefighter had appropriately stated her opinion that no one should be permitted to graduate if they can’t “meet all the requirements - male, female, black or white.”
She also was quoted as stating that the FDNY, under Court pressure to hire more minorities, “want their numbers - that’s all it is.”
Finally, she was quoted as stating that such special treatment made all female firefighters “look bad” and “undermined everything we’ve strived for and achieved on our own accord.” These opinions are certainly shared by nearly every active firefighter in the Department. Nevertheless, Commissioner Cassano directed that the Bureau of Investigation and Trials [BITS] to launch an investigation to determine who had the audacity to speak to the Post reporter and express her honest views.
BITS immediately focused on the female instructors at the Fire Academy who worked with the candidate who was permitted multiple chances to pass the running test. Those instructors included Firefighter Elizabeth Osgood. She is a 10-year veteran of the Department who was on the Lieutenant’s list and expected to be promoted in February 2014. We have learned that BITS, acting with the Fire Commissioner’s approval, abused the Commissioner’s subpoena power by covertly subpoenaing Firefighter Osgood’s cell phone records (and probably the cell phone records of several other firefighters) to see if she had made or received calls from Post reporter Edelman. They did this before ever asking Firefighter Osgood if she had spoken to the Post. Even worse, they issued their subpoena to Verizon without first having the subpoena reviewed by the Corporation Counsel’s Office, as contemplated by the statute granting the Commissioner’s subpoena power.
Further, aware that Verizon’s policy was to notify its customers if their cell phone records were subpoenaed (except in criminal matters), the Department pressed Verizon not to notify Firefighter Osgood of the subpoena.
When questioned by BITS, Firefighter Osgood readily admitted that she had spoken to the Post reporter as a private citizen, but also truthfully denied that all of the information in the Post article came from her.
The Fire Commissioner, however, claiming that the Department is still “investigating” the facts and circumstances of the Post article, refused to promote Firefighter Osgood to Lieutenant in February and continues to hold her promotion hostage.
The actions by Commissioner Cassano and his staff in this matter are deplorable. They are a classic example of illegal retaliation against Firefighter Osgood for her valid exercise of her First Amendment rights.
The Department’s thin-skinned and excessive reaction to the Post article is an insult to every member of this Department.
The UFA will take every step it can to vindicate Firefighter Osgood’s rights and get her the promotion which she has earned. She is an excellent firefighter who deserves the respect of every member of the FDNY.
We will also do everything we can to prevent any future abuse of the Department’s subpoena power. Hopefully, the next Fire Commissioner will have a greater respect for the First Amendment and your privacy rights than illustrated by the current office holder.
As always, stay safe!
Stephen J. Cassidy,