A whistleblower lawsuit filed Monday accused St. Paul Fire Chief Butch Inks of favoritism and then retaliating against employees who raised concerns about it.
Inks let “poorly performing” recruits — some of whom he was personally connected to — graduate from the fire academy and gutted the training division when staff raised concerns about the practice, according to the lawsuit filed by former fire training officer Jovan Palmieri against Inks, Assistant Chief Michael Gaede and the city of St. Paul.
The lawsuit states that from 2016 through December 2019, Inks and Gaede interfered with and obstructed recruits’ training on several occasions. Inks became interim chief in January 2018 after a stint as assistant chief and was permanently appointed in November 2019.
“The actions and statements of Inks and Gaede created public safety risks for Saint Paul’s citizens, businesses and entities, as well as on-the-job health and safety risks for Saint Paul’s firefighters,” the lawsuit states.
Fire officials could not be reached for comment Monday evening. City spokesman Peter Leggett said the city was not aware of the lawsuit, nor has it received a court filing.
Palmieri, a 19-year veteran of the department, was district chief and fire training officer before he was “constructively discharged” in December.
He opposed and reported incidents involving Inks and Gaede that he believed violated national and state firefighter training standards, according to the lawsuit.
One of those incidents occurred in 2018, the lawsuit states, when Palmieri told Inks and Gaede that a recruit who “panicked in live fire exercises” and could not hold a fire hose was “unsafe and created a risk for the department and public.”
Gaede disagreed, according to the lawsuit, and “impliedly threatened” Palmieri to keep quiet.
On a number of occasions, “Inks intervened on behalf of recruits he had personal connections to,” the lawsuit states.
In most instances where staff recommendations were overridden, the recruits went on to graduate from the academy.
Palmieri faced retaliation for repeatedly voicing concerns, the lawsuit states; at one point, Inks threatened the promotion of a woman on Palmieri’s staff if she continued to speak out about “the performance of some recruits.”
Inks and Gaede began to short-staff the fire training division between January 2018 and October 2019, according to the lawsuit, until only one staff officer was left: Palmieri. That resulted in a firefighters-to-staff ratio of 450-1.
“This practice and policy set a dangerous precedent at SPFD,” the lawsuit said.
In September, three months before his discharge, Palmieri submitted a report to the city of St. Paul detailing his concerns about Inks’ and Gaede’s behavior. The report was dismissed, the lawsuit said.