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S.L. fire captain says she was demoted for questioning alleged fraud, fire code violations

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City's first ever female fire division chief has filed a notice of claim against the city, making a slew of allegations including fraud, cover-up, state fire code violations and retaliation by department bosses.

Martha Ellis, who worked for the city for 21 years and in 2009 became the first woman in the history of the Salt Lake City Fire Department to hold the rank of division chief, filed the notice of claim June 6, a precursor to a possible lawsuit.

Ellis also worked as a fire marshal before she was demoted on May 3. Now, she's alleging that her demotion was retaliatory, the result of her raising concerns that department higher-ups used city time for personal activities and committed payroll fraud.

In addition, Ellis alleges that a lack of smoke detectors at Fire Station No. 2 — which caught fire last year — and installation of bike lanes on 300 South violated state and city fire codes, according to the notice of claim.

Four other Salt Lake firefighters have also filed notice of claims against the city over the Fire Station No. 2 blaze, alleging the city was violating fire codes in its own fire stations.

"During her employment, Capt. Ellis communicated in good faith about what she reasonably perceived to be potential misuse of public funds and/or suspected violations of state law and city policies and ordinances," the claim states. "Capt. Ellis also objected and refused to carry out directives (i.e., cover up) what she reasonably believed to be violations of the fire code."

Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokeswoman, Holly Mullen, said the mayor declined to comment Wednesday.

"Seeing as it's a potential or threatened litigation, there's no comment at this point," she said.

Jasen Asay, Salt Lake fire spokesman, also declined to comment on behalf of the department.

"We are aware of the notice of claim, but at this point we can't make any further comment," Asay said.

Ellis said in a statement Wednesday that her allegations shed light on public concerns over Salt Lake City government on multiple levels.

"Although I have filed the notice of claim in response to what I believe to be retaliatory disciplinary actions, this story has broader implications in public safety, appropriate use of public funds and transparency in governance," she said. "Every effort has been made to resolve these matters at the lowest possible level. Having exhausted all other options, I felt obligated to make my concerns public, as not doing so would be in a direct conflict with my responsibilities as a public servant."

Retaliation

Ellis claims she uncovered information in March 2015 that suggested the fire department was knowingly allowing members of its executive team to engage in personal activities on city time, without requiring any accounting of time or reduction in pay.

She alleges that department bosses were condoning making adjustments to TeleStaff, the automated scheduling software used by the department, to show some employees were working 40-hour weeks even though they were scheduled to work fewer hours.

Ellis complained of the potential payroll fraud to the city attorney in a May 2015 letter, according to the notice of claim. Later, she attempted to reach Biskupski to inform her of the issue, but the mayor told her to contact her spokesman, Matthew Rojas.

Ellis then told Rojas she had reason to believe that Fire Chief Brian Dale had been showing himself as "present and accounted for in the staffing document while going out of town" on business for Internal Academies of Emergency Dispatchers, a group for which Dale has taught classes.

The mayor said her office would look into the issue after it became public.

Biskupski hadn't yet decided to reappoint Chief Dale, who was part of former Mayor Ralph Becker's administration, before Dale announced last month that he would be retiring this fall.

Ellis was placed on administrative leave because the city was considering disciplinary action against her because "she failed to meet certain performance expectations," according to the claim.

Ellis claims that department executives and the mayor, among others, "blame her for the heightened scrutiny" of Dale and the department following negative publicity, and that Dale blames Ellis for Biskupski's "reluctance to appoint him," according to the claim.

Ellis also alleges that fire executives "publicly disparaged" Ellis, calling her "a troublemaker" and someone who is "predisposed to making complaints," the claim states.

Ellis specifically names Dale, Deputy Fire Chief Karl Lieb and Assistant Fire Chief Rusty McMicken in her claim.

Dale declined to comment Wednesday, Asay said.

Fire code violations

While informing Rojas of her concerns with payroll fraud, Ellis also spoke him about concerns she had over Fire Station No. 2.

After the flames, caused by oily rags, spread in the early morning hours, nine firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation. Firefighters who filed an earlier notice of claim against the city claimed the station didn't have enough installed or working smoke alarms.

According to her notice of claim, "crews involved were not happy with the fire department's position on the safety conditions in that the department was attempting to cover up deliberate violations of the fire code."

Ellis also alleges that the department was "trying to place the blame" for the violations on her because she was the fire marshal at the time, even though the department never sought her opinion on the matter and McMicken had approved the smoke detector installation at the station.

Ellis' code allegations also extend to the bike lanes on 300 South. According to her notice of claim, she protested plans to install the protected bike lanes because they would narrow the roadway to less than the 26-foot minimum required for fire truck access. Nonetheless, construction began in 2014.

"Notwithstanding her opposition, the city with the sanction of the fire department moved forward with the bicycle project," her notice of claim states. "According to Capt. Ellis, this is because certain individuals within the fire department believe that the fire code can be manipulated at will, and they made the initial decision without consulting the fire prevention office."

Ellis alleges that the department was "trying to backtrack or cover up the fact that it had approved" the bike lanes "in deliberate violation of the code."

According to her notice of claim, Ellis is asking for reinstatement, payment of lost compensation and employment benefits, and double damages at the cost of the suit and attorney fees.

She is being represented by attorney Jaqualin Peterson.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1