Firefighter Accused Chief of Assault

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
Matt Geiger
Middleton resident and suspended firefighter Tom Engelbrecht.

A longtime firefighter accused Middleton Fire Chief Aaron Harris of assault last year after an altercation at the site of a housefire in the Town of Springfield. The chief and the Middleton Fire Commission, which oversee a district encompassing 54 square miles and approximately 30,000 people, deny there was any wrongdoing.

Middleton resident Tom Engelbrecht, a firefighter for most of the past decade, was given notification of his inactive status by the department on May 3, 2012, after reporting the alleged assault to the Dane County Sheriff’s Office. Engelbrecht was listed as a volunteer firefighter who was paid per-call by the department.

Engelbrecht told deputies on April 29 that Harris had verbally and physically assaulted him one day earlier, grabbing his arm hard enough to leave visible bruises through his three-layer turnout gear.

The alleged incident occurred after firefighters had extinguisehed a blaze on the 5000 block of Sunrise Ridge Trail. Both sides agree that Engelbrecht was removed from the grounds.

According to Engelbrecht’s account, he went to retrieve an attic ladder, possibly in conflict with an order that had been given by Harris. Engelbrecht said he had not heard the order, and that Harris confronted him, yelling and shaking a finger in his face.

Engelbrecht said he was apologetic, but Harris continued yelling and told him to leave the site. He said when he turned to pick up his mask and leave, Harris grabbed his bicep and pulled him back, stating, “Where the hell are you going?”, according to an incident report filed with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.

Engelbrecht said he believes the incident was retaliation for a letter he wrote in 2005, in which Engelbrecht and 19 other then-current and former firefighters alleged Harris was running the department in an unsafe manner.

“It was retaliation [for] an incident that happened eight years ago,” Engelbrecht told investigators.

The Dane County Sheriff’s deputy who took Engelbrecht’s statement wrote in her report that she observed and photographed “three small bruises on Mr. Engelbrecht’s left bicep.”

Battalion chief Brad Subera witnesses the altercation and provided his account for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office as well. He said Harris and Engelbrecht stood face to face and both were yelling. Subera added that Harris told Engelbrecht he was unable to trust him, saying he suspected the disagreement did indeed stem from the clash that occurred eight years earlier.

“I believe the intention was to face Tom to him because he was still talking to him,” Subera said of Harris grabbing Engelbrecht’s arm. “I don’t know if it was inappropriate or not.”

“Nothing made me think, ‘Oh God, you shouldn’t have done that,’” Subera added. “It just happened.”

The investigating deputy also contacted Harris, describing him as “defensive” during a brief phone conversation. “Mr. Harris stated he spoke with the fire district attorney and they told him that this was an internal issue and he was not to discuss anything that happened under his command,” the incident report stated. The investigator’s conversation with Harris lasted less than three minutes.

Engelbrecht received a letter from Harris, dated May 3, confirming that he had been made inactive with the department. He was directed not to respond to calls of any nature. He said in an interview with the Times-Tribune last week that he has received no update on his status since that time.

Engelbrecht and his attorney, Aaron Halstead, contended Harris violated the fire department’s employee code, which prohibits “threatening, attempting [to inflict or] inflicting bodily harm.”

Engelbrecht said he wants financial compensation for his lost time. “And I want people to know about this,” he said. “I want some kind of resolution.”

“I’ve been running into burning buildings for ten years,” Engelbrecht stated. “I think what I’m asking for in return is only fair.”

Both the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office opted not to file charges after reviewing the evidence.

Middleton Fire Commission chairman Ken Sipsma weighed in on the matter in a letter to the Dane County Sheriff’s Office last year. The letter, dated December 28, 2012, said Harris is “ultimately in charge of all personnel on the fire ground[s],” according to state statute SPS 330.14(1)(d) and the Middleton Fire District Scalar Structure.

In an email to the Times-Tribune sent on Monday of this week, Sipsma said the sheriff’s office investigated the complaint and did not recommend that anyone be prosecuted as a result of the firefighter’s allegations.

“As chairman of the Middleton Fire Commission, I have been aware of and I reviewed all of the relevant information since the date of the occurrence,” Sipsma wrote. “In my discretion as chairman of the commission, I declined any further investigation into the volunteer firefighter’s complaint because: 1) law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office conducted a thorough investigation and found the volunteer firefighter’s complaint without merit; and 2) In my judgment, the totality of the circumstances do not warrant any action by the commission.”

“As to the complaint, this matter has been closed for quite some time,” Sipsma continued. “Absent actual, new facts, I will not be revisiting the events of April 28, 2012 or reconsidering my decision.”

“The Middleton Fire Department is widely recognized as being at the pinnacle of excellence in protecting the public and the safety of its own personnel,” he concluded. “Chief Harris deserves significant credit for this for his leadership.   Nothing occurred on April 28, 2012 or since that would change this belief.”

On March 4, 2013, the Dane County District Attorney’s Office confirmed that it had declined any prosecution. On Monday of this week, a detective with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office indicated that a follow-up report by that department yielded similar findings.

Engelbrecht also wrote a formal complain on the matter to Middleton Mayor Kurt Sonnentag. While the City of Middleton does not directly oversee the fire department, it does provide the bulk of its funding. 

Harris declined to comment on Engelbrecht’s allegations, saying the department is still waiting for a final report from the sheriff’s office.

 

EARLIER CONFLICTS

Tensions between some firefighters and Harris have surfaced on multiple occasions over the course of the past decade, although none had either occurred or gone public for several years prior to 2012. Thusfar, the Middleton Fire Commission has thrown its weight behind the chief when he has butted heads with firefighters.

Twenty then-current and former Middleton firefighters, including Engelbrecht, in 2005 wrote a four-page letter to the Middleton Fire Commission in which they were sharply critical of Harris.

They cited concerns about safety, fiscal responsibilities and personnel practices. The letter claimed Harris ran the department like a “dictator” and was present at a call while visibly intoxicated. The letter said vehicles and gear were used inappropriately, and that firefighters felt unsafe working under Harris.

The authors of the letter sent their greivances to city officials after they claimed the Middleton Fire Commission failed to act.

Multiple Middleton firefighters were later joined by Madison’s Firefighters Local 311 in claiming Harris terminated some employees because he had knowledge that they planned to unionize.

Some in the district countered that Harris was the target of a handful of employees who wanted to oust him from his job because they disagreed with administrative changes he was making.

The Local 311 claimed Harris has repeatedly discriminated against members of the department who initially voted to join the union back in 2004. They brought two cases before the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC). The fire district later chose to settle, paying $15,000 but admitting no wrongdoing in the matter.

Harris said he did nothing wrong and claimed he was the target of a calculated vendetta organized by a small number of disgruntled employees.

“A premeditated attack started in 2004 when some individuals began misleading, misrepresented and meritless allegations toward individuals within the department,” Harris wrote in a letter to the department in 2007. “More recently, information was discovered via a website that led us to multiple emails on the Middleton Fire District’s computer system.”

Among other things, Harris said a voodoo hex was purchased and placed on him, and that fire department employee Tom Weber visited numerous psychic websites where he repeatedly discussed his intent to continue a relentless campaign to have Harris removed from his job.

Weber was subsequently fired from the department.

“In September of 2004, a group filed a complaint against me, citing alleged Safety, Fiscal and Labor concerns.  These allegations were investigated by the Fire Commission and found to be false, misleading or meritless,” wrote Harris at the time. “In July of 2005, this group resurfaced to again file false, misleading and meritless allegations and, again, I was cleared of any wrongdoing.  Recent information has surfaced showing that these complaints were politically motivated and done for personal gain.”

Harris suggested the conflict might partially stem from a fundamental difference in philosophy about how the fire department should be run and staffed. While many unions prefer communities the size of Middleton to be staffed primarily by fulltime firefighters, Harris has repeatedly voiced his support for the current, primarily volunteer-based system.

Prior to 2003, the Middleton Fire Chief had been elected to the position on a regular basis by firefighters. Harris was the first to be permanently appointed to the position by the Middleton Fire Commisssion, thus taking away employees’ diriect say in who became head of the department.

When he took over, Harris began a sweeping re-structuring of the department to increase its efficiency, he said, while he remained committed to continued use of primarily volunteer firefighters. Firefighters Local 311 argued Harris used restructuring as a guise under which he punished members of the department who openly disagreed with his leadership style and wanted to unionize in order to ensure fair treatment for firefighters.

In a complaint filed with the WERC on August 12, 2005, the union claimed Harris attempted to keep employees from joining the Firefighters Local 311 by dismissing a regular employee who planned to vote for the move and hiring one he knew would vote against it.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission eventually ordered the fire district to reinstate the firefighter and reimburse him for pay he lost since his position was terminated by the district in February of 2005.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission decision in 2008 indicated that unhappiness with how Harris was running the department prompted the union organizing effort in September of 2004.

 

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