Miami-Dade, Florida Fire Chief Battles To Retain His Job Amid Harassment Charges

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Charles Phillips is fighting a blaze that could end his career -- a controversy over allegations of sexual harassment by his former assistant that is burning out of control.

Phillips' executive assistant, Sarah Hartfield, also accused the chief of making her do his homework during work hours for a doctoral program he was taking at night.

The allegations against Phillips, the county's first black fire chief, have been hotly debated in Miami-Dade for weeks and have struck such a nerve that many black residents have rallied to support him.

But Phillips also is in jeopardy because of the statements about Hartfield that he and others have made in his defense.

When the State Attorney's Office impounded Hartfield's computer to review her activities, they found problems with her story. The investigation found that more than 60 percent of Hartfield's computer usage consisted of browsing through Internet sites for her personal use -- not the overwhelming workload on Phillips' behalf that she had described.

"Given the fact that during the time in question, Ms. Hartfield had the time to visit over two hundred Internet web sites, it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that her working on any of Chief Phillips' course work prohibited her from completing her work assignments," a report from investigators concluded.

As a result, prosecutors closed the case, citing insufficient evidence to prove a criminal charge against Phillips, who along with Hartfield is on paid administrative leave.

But although no criminal wrongdoing was found, county officials said they needed to evaluate whether Phillips violated any administrative rule. To that end, County Manager George Burgess appointed a three-member panel of top county personnel officials to conduct an investigation.

The results have been submitted to Burgess, who has said he will not be rushed in making a decision on whether to ask Phillips to leave his $187,000 position and three decades of service in the fire department.

"I want to understand the facts personally," Burgess told Joe Cooper, the host of Topical Currents on WLRN-FM, on Friday. "It is a tough issue, and tough issues should be dealt with responsibly."

Because of the chief's public-relations campaign, however, Burgess must do more than decide whether Phillips violated county policy.

The newly appointed county manager also must consider whether Phillips acted appropriately in his efforts to harness community support.

At issue is what Phillips and his supporters said when he ended his six-week-long silence and recently appeared on a two-hour- long, paid program to defend himself.

During the program, which was paid for by a group calling itself Concerned Citizens for Chief Charles Phillips, the chief's deputy called the program to offer a "different" perspective on his boss' accuser.

"I spoke to her on several occasions regarding her tardiness, her absenteeism, her meeting deadlines, her professionalism," said Deputy Chief Leronardo Stringer on Gospel 1490 WMBM-AM. "Sometimes she would go home, and sometimes she would go to the hospital and get checked out. I told her and I said, `I realize you might have some problems but probably you need to take some time off. I'm not a doctor; I don't know what's wrong with you.' "

Two days later, Phillips appeared on a second radio show, WEDR-FM 99 Jamz, and described Hartfield as "very sickly," a comment that -- along with those of his deputy -- has not helped the chief's case, county officials say.

The comments also upset those closest to Hartfield.

"It's a sad situation that they had to stoop to those types of tactics," said Hartfield's husband, Gary Hartfield. "The people that know my wife and myself know that we speak the truth."

Women rights groups also responded with outrage, calling Phillips' attempts to expose Hartfield's "dirty laundry" as "tacky."

"That's a cheap shot for anyone to do," said Sandy Wayland, chairwoman chair of Miami-Dade County National Women's Political Caucus. "It's not mature; it's not professional. If he really didn't do this, why would he be so on the defensive? Say `I'm innocent' and leave it at that, let the attorneys take over. It just proves it's still a boys' club."

But his attorney disagrees. "This is a red herring," Norman Powell said. "His name has been muddied in this community. Allowing weeks of having the chief's name being dragged through the mud is highly unfair."

Those who participated in the program with Phillips say they have no regrets.

"We didn't try to attack so much her as we did attack the system using her," said Nathaniel Wilcox, a leader in the push to reinstate Phillips.

With Burgess expected to make a decision soon, the State Attorney's Office has accepted another piece of evidence offered by Hartfield that could prompt a reopening of the criminal case: a 49-page book report that Hartfield said she compiled for Phillips while he was in Hong Kong.