N.Y. Fire Chief Is Removed Amid ‘Inappropriate Behavior’ Inquiry

The top uniformed officer of the New York City Fire Department was relieved of his duties on Thursday amid accusations of “inappropriate behavior” toward subordinates and co-workers, including the most senior woman at the agency.

Chief James E. Leonard, a 39-year veteran of the department, was accused of bullying and screaming at several people at the agency, and attempting to freeze out the highest-ranking nonuniformed woman at the department, Laura Kavanagh.

Ms. Kavanagh, who had worked on Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign and then served as a special assistant to the mayor, moved to the Fire Department to become its head of external affairs and was promoted to first deputy commissioner in January. She is the second woman to hold that job.

Chief Leonard will be placed on modified duty while the city Law Department investigates his conduct around both men and women.

The Daily News reported this week that Chief Leonard was engaged in a power struggle with Ms. Kavanagh. Two people in the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing inquiry, said that Chief Leonard had ordered some of his subordinates not to speak with Ms. Kavanagh.

“While a review is conducted by the city’s Law Department concerning allegations of inappropriate behavior, Chief James Leonard has been relieved of his duties as chief of department effective today and placed on modified assignment,” Frank Gribbon, a deputy commissioner in the department, said in an emailed statement.

Two Fire Department officials described Chief Leonard as a bullying boss whose aggressive behavior made the agency work less effectively, in particular because he would order the chiefs who reported to him not to deal with the agency’s administrative side, including Ms. Kavanagh and others who worked for her.

A senior fire officer said that he witnessed many instances when Chief Leonard lost his temper and screamed at high-ranking subordinates. He said that Chief Leonard was known as “Jekyll and Hyde” in the department.

He recalled a meeting during which he attempted to correct some information that Chief Leonard had cited. He said that Chief Leonard shouted him down.

“As a grown man, I’ve never been spoken to that way,” the officer said.

The current chief of operations, John Sudnik, will serve as the acting chief of department, Mr. Gribbon said in his statement.

Chief Leonard was promoted to chief of department in 2014 by the fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro. It was not clear to what extent Mr. Nigro was aware of the complaints about Chief Leonard but it appeared unlikely that he would not have known.

The senior fire officer said that chiefs would find ways to work surreptitiously with nonuniformed administrators, behind Chief Leonard’s back, in order to get work done, sometimes holding meetings with them when they knew that Chief Leonard would be out of the office.

“Everybody talks about it,” the senior fire officer said. “Why is he putting up with it for so long? It’s so agencywide, the knowledge about how bad an actor Leonard is.”

A woman who works as a senior administrator at the agency and reports to Ms. Kavanagh said that she has also suffered mistreatment.

The woman said that Chief Leonard ordered top-level chiefs not to have any dealings with her or her subordinates. “If he doesn’t want you involved, he will take every course of action to systematically cut you out of involvement,” she said.

The accusations about Chief Leonard recalled those that recently led to the firing of the city investigations commissioner, Mark Peters. A report by an independent investigator concluded that Mr. Peters had abused his power in retaliating against an office whistle-blower and it portrayed him as a bullying and arrogant boss who sought to intimidate subordinates.

The Fire Department shake-up comes on the heels of Mr. de Blasio’s botched firing of Joseph Esposito, the head of the Office of Emergency Management, an agency that works closely with the Fire Department. Mr. Esposito was told on Friday by Laura Anglin, a deputy mayor, that he was being fired, but he stayed on the job in defiance of the order.

As confusion built around the agency — which coordinates the city’s response to emergencies — Mr. de Blasio said that he intended to replace Mr. Esposito as part of a push to modernize the agency, but that Mr. Esposito would remain on the job for the time being.

From The New York Times

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