A former deputy chief who left the city under unusual circumstances was named to lead the District's fire department on Thursday, the same day Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray announced he would retain Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.
Mr. Gray announced the appointments at an afternoon news conference in which he introduced his public-safety team. The appointment of Chief Lanier, who is among the most popular public officials in Washington, was widely expected.
But the appointment of Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to lead the 2,000-member D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department raised questions. Chief Ellerbe, a 27-year veteran of the D.C. fire department, briefly served as the city's interim fire chief in 2000. He last served as the department's director of community outreach before leaving in August 2009 to lead the fire department in Sarasota, Fla.
The Washington Times reported in December 2009 that when Chief Ellerbe left the city to take the Sarasota job, instead of resigning from the department, he departed under an unusual personnel exchange agreement that placed him on leave-without-pay status.
Fire department spokesman Pete Piringer told The Times last year that the arrangement was made to keep Chief Ellerbe in the department until he turned 50 in April this year so he could collect his pension immediately upon his retirement instead of deferring his benefits until age 55 as he would have to do if he simply resigned.
Staying on the District's books would have allowed Chief Ellerbe, whose salary was $149,892, to collect up to 80 percent of his final pay, or almost $600,000 over the five years until he turned 55.
The Times obtained a copy of the personnel exchange agreement, which notes that the period of the exchange was to run through April 10, 2010 - Chief Ellerbe's 50th birthday. Officials in the District and Sarasota signed off on the arrangement in July 2009.
But after reports in The Times, D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin sent a letter to Chief Ellerbe in December 2009 that revoked the personnel exchange program that had allowed him to serve with both departments at once. Chief Rubin ordered Chief Ellerbe to return to the District. Chief Ellerbe resigned from the D.C. fire department in January.
Asked about the arrangement, Mr. Gray said he expected it to be reviewed by the D.C. Council during Chief Ellerbe's confirmation hearings.
"I think he operated with integrity," Mr. Gray said.
Chief Ellerbe said at Thursday's news conference that the arrangement enabled him to acquire experience to broaden his skills.
"The personnel exchange agreement gave me the opportunity to be a fire chief, which is something I wouldn't have been able to do here. We already had a fire chief. And to acquire experience, personnel exchange agreements are initiated to give an employee an opportunity to broaden their skills."
Asked whether he took the job in Sarasota with the intention of returning to the District, Chief Ellerbe said: "That was an option."
Chief Ellerbe seemed to dismiss the notion that the term of the personnel exchange agreement was slated to end on his 50th birthday, as the paperwork obtained by The Times indicated.
"I don't know if it was a coincidence or not, but the personnel exchange agreement was rescinded. I resigned," he said.
WTOP Radio (FM 103.5) reported that Chief Ellerbe, while living in Sarasota since August 2009, was still getting a homestead exemption - a property tax break for residents - on a home he owns in the District.
Asked about the exemption and why he had not notified the city's Office of Tax and Revenue that the D.C. address was no longer his principal address, Chief Ellerbe said he did not know that his accountant had not done it and he would rectify the situation.