Six-Figure Court Fight Between City Of Omaha And Firefighter Goes To Nebraska Supreme Court

OMAHA, Neb. — It’s a two-year court fight that already cost the City of Omaha six figures and it’s not over yet.

Mayor Jean Stothert still wants to keep Omaha Fire Union President, Steve LeClair from returning to work.Advertisement

LeClair won his arbitration fight after getting fired in February of 2019 for an incident with a woman at a bar a few months prior.

But week after week amid the pandemic, Stothert detailed the city’s dire financial situation.

“I am going to have to make some tough decisions soon and some of those decisions could mean layoffs,” she said.

“We have a hiring freeze. We have a purchasing freeze going on.”

“We are counting pennies now.”

“I mean multiples of tens of millions of shortfalls in the city budget.”

She was transparent with the numbers, a $75 million hole from lost revenue, canceled events, and unexpected COVID-19 costs.

While the mayor closed city pools, libraries, community centers and furloughed part-time employees, the City did continue to pay one bill every month.

It paid lawyers’ fees to an outside law firm, Baird Holm, hired by the city to keep LeClair from returning to the Omaha Fire Department.

“He hasn’t been at work at a fire station since December of 2018,” said John Corrigan who represents the union.

Fire Chief Dan Olsen terminated LeClair over an intoxicated incident at Tiger Tom’s Pub.

Surveillance video, released by the city, shows an African-American woman being shoved in the back.

She told police she felt a punch and heard LeClair whisper, “white power” after she rejected his advances.

LeClair pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault and battery and disorderly conduct.

He served six months probation.

At a court hearing in June 2019, LeClair said,

“I’m anxious to get this set of facts in front of an independent arbitrator with regard to my job.”

The City’s contract with the fire union allowed LeClair to appeal to an independent arbitrator.

“The city put its best case before a neutral arbitrator. The arbitrator told them this was a violation of the contract to terminate him and ordered a five day suspension and that he get reinstated with full back pay and seniority,” Corrigan said.

But the city’s fight was just getting started.

It brought on Baird Holm lawyers, who have racked up thousands of hours and thousands of dollars on the LeClair case since July 2019.

KETV Investigates discovered in 2019, the city paid $237,788.39.

In 2020, $137,278.00.

It paid a total of nearly $400,000 on this one case and add that amount to potentially $350,000 in back pay and pension for LeClair if the courts continue to rule in his favor.

The fire union calls it a waste of taxpayer money.

“Had Steve LeClair not been attached to this, almost none of that money would have spent been spent,” Corrigan said.

When the City appealed the arbitrator’s decision, a Douglas County judge called it “frivolous” and ordered the city to pay the fire union $16,000.

But the city didn’t stop there. Instead, it asked for a legal “do-over.”

Denied again, the case moved to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Investigative reporter Michelle Bandur asks Corrigan,

“Why do you think the mayor and the city are fighting this so hard?”

“Well, I’m sure they’ll tell you and the mayor takes the position of it’s a matter of principle,” Corrigan said.

There is no love lost between Stothert and the 12-term fire union president.

The fire union endorsed her opponent in the last mayoral race.

Even the independent arbitrator noted the adversarial relationship.

In her decision, she wrote:

“Although the mayor did not seem to remember any specific disagreements (between herself and the grievant) during her testimony, the record reflects they certainly existed.

“There’s a long list of things that been antagonistic between them, which is fine. But he shouldn’t get treated differently than anybody else when it comes to enforcing that contract on issues of discipline,” Corrigan said.

And as firefighters fell ill to COVID-19 and had to be quarantined for exposures.

Corrigan said the city needed every firefighter to protect the community.

“We’re paying people overtime to fill vacancies we could otherwise fill with people, like Steve LeClair and the money staying in the city, rather than going to pau legal charges.”

So where does the money to pay these legal fees come from?

Baird Holm received checks from the city’s judgment fund, a fund in the City Charter that automatically receives tax levies.

The budget for those legal fees ranges anywhere from $2 million to $3 million.

Both LeClair and Stothert turned down KETV requests for an interview. The mayor has said in the past, she has been disappointed with previous court rulings but looks forward to further review by the higher courts. She also said the city will fall on the right side of history with this case.


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