Metro

Questions raised about City Hall ties of outside counsel investigating Fire Department

Ayeer, MA - 6/18/2018 - Passersby walk near City Hall in Ayeer, MA, June 18, 2018.. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Boston’s City Hall.

An outside counsel hired by the city to independently review the Boston Fire Department’s handling of harassment and misconduct allegations has a long history of representing City Hall in employment disputes — including a current racial harassment case involving a black male firefighter.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh ordered the investigation last month, after a Globe story detailed complaints from six current and former female firefighters who chronicled a pattern of harassment, sexism, and discrimination on the force.

But some critics question whether the investigator who will lead the mayor’s review — Kay H. Hodge, a respected labor and employment lawyer and partner at Stoneman, Chandler & Miller LLP — can run an independent query. At least one Boston city councilor said the mayor should pick a lawyer with no ties to City Hall.

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“It doesn’t look right,’’ Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George said. “At least for appearances’ sake, it should be a different person.”

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Hodge, who did not respond to requests for comment, is currently representing the city in its appeal of a case involving a black Boston firefighter who was disciplined in 2015 because of a remark he made to a colleague that the department deemed racially charged.

The firefighter, Mark Jones, promptly appealed the decision to the state’s Civil Service Commission, arguing that he made the remark under duress after being the target of repeated racially motivated harassment in his firehouse. Hodge represented the Fire Department in that case and now, on behalf of her client, is seeking to get the commission’s finding in favor of Jones vacated by the court.

Jones said he was shocked to learn that Walsh put Hodge in charge of reviewing misconduct in the department.

“I said to myself, ‘She’s not independent,’ ’’ said Jones, who is representing himself in the case. “She’s actually dependent on the city just like me and the female firefighters who are unjustly treated.”

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Laura Oggeri, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Hodge has a “strong record of conducting fair, independent internal investigations for the city of Boston.”

The Globe story that triggered the inquiry highlighted the experiences of six current and former female firefighters who said they had experienced unnecessary touching, disparaging comments, and isolation at work. They said they often don’t speak up because they don’t feel believed by the department administration and fear being treated as though they did something wrong. There are currently only 16 women on the city’s 1,500-member firefighting force.

One woman filed a complaint alleging that a male colleague used a department-issued application on his smartphone to locate a fire lieutenant who was at the woman’s house. The man then took a screenshot of the address, shared it with colleagues, the complaint said, and placed a bet with other firefighters about whether the woman and the lieutenant were sexually involved, sparking rumors. The male firefighter was disciplined.

That same woman also alleged that another coworker attempted to sexually assault her in their Jamaica Plain firehouse in January. That firefighter, David Sanchez, is charged with indecent assault and is expected to appear in West Roxbury Municipal Court this week for a pretrial hearing.

Firefighters Yvette Ram and Julia Rodriguez, who are among the women raising concerns about the department, said they are concerned about Hodge’s ties to the city.

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“You can’t have it both ways,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t on one day be a champion for women and minorities and the next day . . . fight those cases on behalf of the city. I just don’t think she is going to look at this objectively.”

City officials said Hodge, a former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association who has written and lectured extensively on employment law issues, investigated harassment allegations that led to the termination of former health and human services chief Felix G. Arroyo, records show.

She also helped lead the investigation that resulted in the termination in April of another Boston firefighter after his Facebook postings were deemed antigay and anti-Semitic and were critical of interracial relationships.

“She is widely regarded as an expert in employment law,” Oggeri said.

But Hodge has also represented the city in a variety of employment and labor disputes, some predating the Walsh administration.

Hodge served on the legal team that represented the city in a case involving black police sergeants alleging racial bias in a civil service exam, and she represented the city in court in 2016 when the police union tried to block the implementation of a pilot body camera program that they claimed violated their contract.

Paul R. Tremblay, a Boston College law professor and a professional ethics expert, said Hodge’s work for City Hall does not represent a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict, in the Fire Department inquiry.

“This is not a legal ethics issue at all,’’ Tremblay said. “If she is a good lawyer, then her duty is to state the risks [to her client] . . . and she owes it to [her client to] be honest about what she is finding.”

But some lawyers and political observers said that her ties to City Hall expose her and the Walsh administration to political criticism.

“The political optics do not look flattering for the city,’’ said Boston University professor Tom Whalen, who studies political history. “There will be a feeling that the fix is in, that these claims are not being taken seriously. ”

Essaibi-George, the city councilor, said she also has concerns about how the public could perceive Hodge’s review as tainted.

“We want to make sure that anyone with individual concerns about what’s happening within the departments can do so without it being tangled in this unclear relationship with the city,” she said.

Councilor Lydia Edwards said the city must ensure that the independent inquiry is perceived as beyond reproach.

Edwards, a lawyer, said she has not been informed of the scope of Hodge’s inquiry, whether she will be looking into any systemic issues, or whether anyone at the Fire Department will be held accountable at the end of her review.

“I think the city and the people need to know [what she is investigating],’’ said Edwards, who also questioned what the administration planned to do with Hodge’s findings. “I will have more faith in the mayor and the investigation when I find out what she is looking for.”

City officials have said that Hodge will examine the department’s handling of harassment and discrimination allegations brought by women on the force. However, they cautioned that given the sensitivity of the subject matter and privacy concerns involved in personnel issues, they will determine at the completion of Hodge’s review what can be made public.

Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn has maintained that safety in the firehouses is paramount and said he welcomes the independent inquiry. At a budget hearing last month, he fielded sharp questions from three female city councilors about safety, training, and accountability in his department in light of the female firefighters’ allegations.

“As far as accountability,’’ he said, “the buck stops here.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the affiliation of Paul R. Tremblay. He is a law professor at Boston College.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.