Fla. fire chief rescinds resignation amidst sexual harassment allegations

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Collins rescinded his resignation that came after a subordinate claimed he made inappropriate comments about her

By Hannah Winston
The Palm Beach Post

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Collins has rescinded his resignation after announcing his departure from the department Friday. The resignation came after allegations of sexual harassment in his department, but the chief’s reason for departure remained unclear.

The Palm Beach Post reported in December that Division Chief Chris Hoch was reprimanded for violating policy after a subordinate complained in 2015 that he made inappropriate sexual comments about her, including a rumor that she had sex with her supervisor.

In an email to Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker from Salim Punjani, Collins’s lawyer, he explained his client decided to retract his resignation, which would have been effective this Friday, because Collins felt “coerced, forced, placed under duress, and intimated into resigning from his position.”

According to the email: “Mr. Collins was informed that he could either resign or be terminated effective immediately without being informed of the basis of the termination, his rights, or benefits.”

“He informed you that he was making this decision on the spot and felt coerced. You ignored his comments and forced him to make a decision on the spot without allowing him to speak with an attorney regarding the situation and/or his options,” the email continued.

Punjani could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

The email comes just days after Collins resigned.

Last week, Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay said she hoped to learn more this week about the resignation, but she said it was her understanding that there were questions around reports of sexual harassment and how those cases are handled within the fire department.

“In this day and age, I have zero tolerance for not handling those types of incidents as quickly as possible and not addressing them so if that’s the case I believe his resignation was the right decision,” McKinlay previously said.

McKinlay could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

In October 2015, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Capt. Amanda Vomero accused Hoch of making the inappropriate sexual comments. Sixteen months later, a February 2017 internal investigation found Hoch had violated county policy for discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace. Hoch, who has been with the department for more than 20 years and is the third-highest ranking official in his capacity as division chief, received a reprimand and educational training the following month, according to court documents.

Collins previously said he believed Hoch’s punishment was sufficient and that no demotion, suspension or termination was needed. Collins also said he believed the captain’s complaints were handled properly. He denied that there was a hostile work environment in the department, as the internal investigation reported.

In May, Cooper filed a whistle-blower lawsuit claiming the department, including Collins, retaliated against him for providing a statement in support of Vomero to the Office of Equal Opportunity investigation into her 2015 complaint.

Copyright 2018 The Palm Beach Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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