Boston fire chief quits amid nasty dispute
Boston Fire Chief Steve E. Abraira announced his resignation Monday after less than two years on the job, ending an ugly power struggle between an out-of-town chief and a home-grown command staff. The dispute spilled into public view as it devolved into name calling and threatening letters exchanged by attorneys.
Abraira, the first chief in the history of the Fire Department hired from the outside, clashed frequently with his immediate subordinates over his management style and, most recently, his handling of the Boston Marathon bombings.
In his resignation letter, Abraira wrote that his selection as chief “never had the support of a number of members of the department who preferred that the chief be selected from within the ranks of the department itself.”
Abraira came under attack in recent weeks from his 13 deputy chiefs, all of whom have risen through the department’s ranks. The deputies sent a letter to Mayor Thomas M. Menino in late April accusing Abraira of abdicating his leadership by not assuming control of fire scenes.
The deputy whose signature was at the top of the critical letter — John Hasson, the department’s chief of operations — will take over as acting chief. In Boston, the chief of the department oversees day-to-day administration and reports directly to Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser.
Fraser would not discuss the search for a permanent chief in detail and declined to say whether he will be soliciting applicants from outside the department.
Abraira’s last day will be Friday, and he will not receive a severance package, Fraser said. He was paid just over $160,000 in 2012, records show. Abraira and his lawyer did not respond Monday to phone messages seeking comment.
Hasson is a 40-year veteran of the Fire Department whose father served as a captain. He previously applied for the chief’s job, Fraser said, but was passed over for Abraira. The city paid Hasson almost $189,000 in 2012, records show.
Hasson did not respond to a request for comment passed through the department.
Joseph G. Donnellan, a lawyer who has represented the 13 deputy chiefs against Abraira, rejected the suggestion that the fallout stemmed from a department chafing under the command of an outsider.
“This has nothing to do with where Chief Abraira is from,” Donnellan said Monday. “It’s not his status as an outsider. It’s his status as someone who failed to exhibit leadership.”
Before the resignation, Donnellan sent Abraira a letter Monday suggesting that the chief had orchestrated a “criminal conspiracy” because he used addresses from the deputy chiefs’ personnel files to send them each a letter at home.
In his letter Monday, Donnellan also rebutted Abraira’s assertion that he had been defamed by the deputy chiefs and urged Abraira to “exit from Boston in a dignified and restrained manner.”
The squabble among the top brass at the Fire Department became public when reporters received a copy of an April 26 letter the deputy chiefs sent to Menino and Fraser. The letter accused Abraira of not taking control at fire scenes, most notably after the Marathon bombings, when the bombing scene was left in control of law enforcement. The deputy chiefs also said that Abraira had acted as a spectator at major fire scenes instead of taking command, as his predecessors had done.
In addition to Hasson, the following deputy chiefs signed the letter: Robert Calobrisi; John Coppney; Richard DiBenedetto; Michael Doherty; Stephen Dunbar; Joseph Finn; Joseph Fleming; Gerard Fontana; David Granara; Daniel McDevitt; Bernard Tully; and Bartholomew Shea.
Abraira previously told the Globe that his command staff had the bombings scene under control. According to national standards, Abraira said, chiefs can take command at scenes but are not required to.
Menino defended Abraira’s performance following the bombings and publicly questioned the motivation behind the deputy chiefs’ criticism.
Metrofire, an association of 34 departments in metropolitan Boston, came to Abraira’s defense. In a letter, Metrofire chairman John F. Nash wrote that Abraira’s integrity was beyond reproach and that the Marathon bombings were being exploited to resist modernization and reform in the Boston Fire Department.
Abraira’s lawyer also sent a cease-and-desist letter to the deputy chiefs at their homes warning that they must refrain from making “defamatory and unlawful statements.”
The letter said the “outrageous attack [was] intended to strengthen [the deputy chiefs’] ability to reject and obstruct Chief Abraira’s efforts to bring the BFD in line with modern firefighting practices.”
The deputy chiefs responded with their own lawyer, Donnellan, who said that Abraira was trying to stop the deputy chiefs from testifying at a City Council hearing scheduled for June 18.
In his letter of resignation, Abraira wrote that he felt compelled to resign because “the baseless attacks by the deputy chiefs, especially their actions of making this a matter of public debate by leaking their letter of April 26 to the press, has made it impossible for me to continue to do my job.”
Abraira also pointed out to Menino and Fraser that he had been hired to modernize the department.
“I think it is also fair to say that unfortunately a vocal and aggressive minority of the members of the department did not support our efforts,” wrote Abraira.