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Report: Fire chief slapped assistant in HQ confrontation

Updated 6:48 am, Friday, March 9, 2012

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  • An independent investigator concluded that it was likely that Fire Chief Richard Felner slapped Assistant Fire Chief George Gomola. Photo: File Photo / Fairfield Citizen
    An independent investigator concluded that it was likely that Fire Chief Richard Felner slapped Assistant Fire Chief George Gomola. Photo: File Photo

 

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An independent investigator has found it is "more likely than not" that Fire Chief Richard Felner slapped Assistant Chief George Gomola during a January confrontation that followed a meeting between the chief and assistant chiefs at Fire Department headquarters.

The report by lawyer Robin Kallor and the written complaint filed by Gomola were released to the Fairfield Citizen, which filed a request under the state Freedom of Information Act.

The 74-year-old Felner, who has been Fairfield's fire chief for the last 13 years, was on vacation for several weeks following the Jan. 10 incident and disputes claims that he struck Gomola. The report, however, refers to the time Felner was off duty as "out pending investigation."

Felner, who returned to work Feb. 21, said in a statement late Wednesday: "I am disappointed by this distortion and mischaracterization of what was a gesture of camaraderie toward a member of my team.

"While the report ultimately correctly concluded that I did not intend to cause any physical harm, it includes numerous inaccuracies.

"The fire commissioners have reviewed the matter and have informed me of their confidence and desire for me to continue in my position. I want to assure the citizens of Fairfield that I will continue to faithfully serve and that their safety remains my priority."

The Fire Commission conducted several closed-door sessions over the last few weeks on the incident, including one where Kallor and a second lawyer joined the commissioners and the selectmen in private, and a second meeting which Felner attended. Gomola was not at any of the meetings, and the commission did not take any action in public session following the closed-door meetings.

Gomola, a 32-year veteran of the department, said Wednesday that his intention was to "try and make sure what happened to me doesn't happen to anyone else in the department or the town."

He said the report speaks for itself.

"It's my Fire Department, my town," Gomola said. "I don't want to do anything to embarrass either."

He said he's grateful that the town "did take it seriously and acted in a professional manner."

No complaint about the incident was filed with police, so they did not investigate.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau said Thursday he has no public comment at this time.

"It's still considered a personnel matter and we're handling it internally," he said.

The investigation conducted by outside lawyers, hired by Tetreau, began Jan. 19. They interviewed a series of Fire Department employees, including Felner's secretary, Sheila Tesei.

During three separate interviews, Tesei told investigators that Felner, who joined the department 53 years ago, came into her office after the confrontation with Gomola in a hallway and said, "I just slapped Gomola."

In his complaint, Gomola claims Felner slapped him on the face three times -- one of those times on the side of his face where he'd just recently had dental work.

Gomola said the incident unfolded as Felner called him into a hallway to talk about Gomola's working an off-duty assignment at a local basketball game, but had called in sick for duty the next day. The assistant chief said he explained that he developed a severe headache and diarrhea halfway through that assignment, but that it was inappropriate to leave the detail for safety reasons.

He said the chief, however, said it "looked bad." Felner also mentioned Gomola's dental work, asked him about getting an exercise bike, according to Gomola, "and then without warning he hit me in the left side of the face with an open fist." Felner struck him again, according to Gomola's complaint, and Gomola said he felt his only option to avoid serious injuries was a verbal response since the incident transpired at the top of a stairwell.

"I stated in a very loud voice and stern tone, `Do not hit me!' With that he struck me on the other side of my face , the side that had the emergency procedure," Gomola stated in his complaint.

In his interviews with investigators, Felner said the day before the incident several firefighters had discussed their disapproval of Gomola for taking a sick day after working a private-duty job the night before.

During his Jan. 10 meeting with the assistant chiefs, Felner said that Gomola was "texting a lot from his cell" and he told him to stop it. A topic of discussion at the meeting was a complaint that the office at Fire Station 2 used by Gomola smelled like a "locker room." Felner surmised that condition was attributable to Gomola, who owns Ash Creek Fitness in Bridgeport. Felner said he tried not to get specific on the source of the problem in order to not embarrass Gomola.

"However, at some point during the meeting, Gomola asked for specifics and the chief said: `It's you, George,' " according to the investigators' report.

Felner admits discussing Gomola's sick day with him in the hallway and telling Gomola, "You better knock it off -- there are other things -- you know what I'm talking about."

The chief said when the conversation ended he opened the door, said "OK, see you later" and "then put his hand on (Gomola's) shoulder. Gomola then said, `I had a root canal.' "

According to the report, Felner said he then walked by Tesei's desk and said, "I touched Gomola and he's hollering -- I had a root canal -- I don't know what that's all about."

He denied telling Tesei he had slapped Gomola, and also denied knowing about Gomola's root canal prior to the hallway discussion.

Felner told investigators Gomola's complaint was false and motivated by past disagreements between the two over Gomola's performance and instances when the chief had to discipline Gomola. He also said he believed the discussion about the locker room odor in the office was also a motivation for the complaint.

According to Felner, firefighters assigned to be Gomola's driver when he is shift commander have asked to be relieved of that role, and when he discussed that issue with him, Gomola had blamed the chief. When Gomola was issued a written warning in June, he said Gomola stated, "Everyone's time comes."

Felner said he called Gomola to apologize for singling him out over the office odor and asked to meet with him to try and work it out, but Gomola had refused.

Felner called Gomola at Ash Creek Fitness on Jan. 18, a call that Gomola put on speaker phone, according to a physical trainer at the business. She said Felner told Gomola he'd been doing some soul searching and it sounded to her as if Felner was crying.

"He said he couldn't sleep," she told investigators in recounting the 10-minute phone call.

She said she did not hear any threatening statements by anyone and that Felner sounded remorseful.

While Felner was off-duty as the investigation took place, he asked Tesei to bring Gomola's sick-day history to a meeting they were to have. After discussing the request with Deputy Chief Art Reid, Tesei did not supply Felner with the information.

Kallor found not only was it likely that Felner had slapped Gomola, but that he did so knowing that Gomola had just had a root canal. The report also gives credibility to Tesei's statement that Felner admitted slapping the assistant chief.

"This was a statement immediately after the incident and before any complaint was lodged," the report states. "Moreover, Tesei had no incentive not to tell the truth. She seemed very devoted to the chief -- so much so that she went to his home to bring him a bottle of wine after the chief went out pending investigation. Moreover, Tesei was such a confidante that it was she the chief trusted enough to type out his statement."

In addition, Kallor said that during the investigation Felner said he did not know about the root canal, but that "clearly contradicts his own statement, in which he admits that he asked (Gomola) about the root canal that he had just had `on Sunday.' "

In fact, she wrote, even if Gomola had been previously disciplined by Felner and the two did not get along, "that fact does not give Tesei the incentive to misrepresent the chief's admission," particularly since she was a confidante of Felner's and only a "work acquaintance" of Gomola's.

Kallor also concluded that Felner did not intend to physically hurt Gomola, nor did he intend to threaten Gomola when he called him at Ash Creek Fitness.

greilly@ctpost.com; 203-556-2771; twitter.com/GreillyPost