Fire district sued by former employee

At least three lawsuits are now pending against the fire district.
Monday, August 6, 2007 | 3:57 p.m. CDT; updated 4:46 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A former chief of staff at the Boone County Fire Protection District has sued his former employer, alleging a retaliatory work environment and financial mismanagement.

Rob Brown filed a lawsuit in federal court on Friday. His lawsuit brings the total number of lawsuits pending against the fire district to at least three.

His suit goes on to claim that fire district Chief Steve Paulsell and former Assistant Chief Sharon Curry engaged in inappropriate sexual activity at the fire district’s headquarters, 2201 I-70 Drive N.W. Curry resigned in February, and no reason was given by either her or the fire district. Curry and Paulsell have since married each other.

David Moen, Brown’s lawyer, said the lawsuit details “financial mismanagement” by Curry and “kickbacks” to her from Marathon Office Interiors. The lawsuit does not provide evidence of any kickbacks or financial mismanagement, but Moen said that he and Brown will produce documents and other evidence as litigation continues. Moen also represents another former employee, Bruce Piringer, who is suing the district for reasons similar to Brown’s.

The lawsuits Piringer and Brown filed against the fire district stem from conflicts between Curry and fire district employees that started in 2000.

The lawsuit alleges that because of her sexual relationship with Paulsell, Curry enjoyed certain special privileges that were denied to others, including:

— Spending the fire district’s money when other officers were not allowed.

— Using the fire district headquarters to have sex with Paulsell.

— Using the fire district’s property for personal use when others were denied the same privilege.

— Dining, traveling and using motel rooms paid for by the fire district.

— Receiving other unspecified financial benefits from her relationship with Paulsell.

Paulsell declined to comment on the allegations of the lawsuit. Curry could not be reached for comment.

Kent Brown, the fire district’s lawyer and who is not related to Rob Brown, said the lawsuit is written to be inflammatory and it is hard for him to tell what the lawsuit is intended to accomplish.

“This is a long saga,” Kent Brown said. “The district has prevailed with the (previous complaints), and we anticipate to prevail with this federal lawsuit.”

The allegations contained in Friday’s lawsuit were first brought before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2005. The EEOC declined to file a lawsuit on Rob Brown’s behalf but issued a right-to-sue letter in January. The letter allows Rob Brown to bring a lawsuit in federal court, but because of financial problems, Brown did not file within the 90 days as required by the letter. Moen said he is pursuing the lawsuit using a procedure that does not require plaintiffs to file within a specific time period.

Moen said his client’s constitutional rights to free speech, under the First Amendment, and due process, under the Fifth Amendment, were violated. By claiming constitutional violations, Rob Brown avoids the requirement to file his lawsuit within 90 days of the EEOC’s right-to-sue letter.

The fire district has been plagued with personnel and financial troubles since 2000. As previously reported by the Missourian, in 2001 the fire district spent about $190,000 of taxpayer money on a large statue that now sits in front of fire district headquarters. No attempt to repay that money has been documented, and it still appears as an unpaid debt in the fire district’s budget.

In June, Curry pleaded guilty to a charge of drunken driving and was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation by Boone County Associate Circuit Court Judge Larry Bryson. She was still employed by the fire district when she was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in October 2006. She resigned from the fire district in February.

The fire district is also being investigated by the FBI, but, as is standard in federal investigations, an FBI spokesman declined to comment on the nature of the investigation.

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