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More lawsuits claim discrimination, harassment and retaliation at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue

Posted at 9:16 PM, Dec 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-28 11:28:48-05

The Contact 5 investigators continue to uncover allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation within Palm Beach County's Fire Rescue.

RELATED: Female captain sues for sex harassment, discriminationHR finds 'offensive work environment'

It's a department that the county's own investigators described as "offensive."

Now, Palm Beach County is potentially on the hook for untold damages in several lawsuits. 

First, a female fire captain, filed a lawsuit, alleging sexual harassment, and retaliation once she brought her concerns to administration.

Captain Amanda Vomero is suing both Palm Beach County and Fire Rescue, claiming she was sexually harassed by a superior and when she brought her case to fire rescue leaders, they failed to stop the harassment. 

In fact, Vomero claims she suffered through retaliation instead.

The county's own investigators support some of Vomero's claims.

Contact 5 found at least two more lawsuits that allege discrimination and retaliation at the hands of Palm Beach County Fire Captains, even the department's top chief. 

One lawsuit was filed in 2016 by Division Chief Joey Cooper, who has been with the department for 28 years. Cooper says it's part of his job to conduct investigations involving allegations of misconduct or wrongdoing

But in his lawsuit, Cooper claims he was punished for doing just that, writing he was "subjected to unlawful retaliation and harassment for making disclosures."

Cooper says the retaliation started when he stood up to District Chief Chris Hoch, who Cooper claims made sexual comments about him and Captain Amanda Vomero. 

In a human resources investigation, Hoch admitted to "spreading rumors about a sexual relationship between Cooper and Vomero." 

"When you have one firefighter who behaves in this manner, it places a bad brush for all of our firefighters," says Palm Beach County Commissioner Paulette Burdick.

She read the HR report, which also found "sexually oriented rumors were commonplace," and that much of the alleged discrimination and retaliation involved high ranking officers.  

The report goes on to say "it's not unusual for rumors to circulate particularly whenever male and female staff work together."

"In my opinion, everybody needs to have training and if it happens again, then I think they should lose their job," said Burdick. "Harassment is not going to be tolerated."

Chief Joey Cooper said it was because of that report, that he continued to be retaliated against.

Cooper says he supported Vomero's claims when speaking to investigators. "After that, Plaintiff was harassed and retaliated against {by the department's top fire chief}, who interfered or attempted to do so, in investigations Plaintiff attempted to conduct," Cooper claimed in his lawsuit.

He also claims the top chief told him to ignore a complaint, and when he didn't, the chief interfered with a "contract Plaintiff had negotiated with the school board."

There's also a lawsuit filed by Sharon Wilson, who claims she was discriminated against, after injuring her wrist during the recruit academy.

She wrote in her 2015 resignation letter that, "Being left no other option, I am currently forced to resign and being told this is the only way to keep my job, by re-applying and getting re-hired."

So far, she has been unable to enter a new academy class. 

"It needs to stop, it needs to stop now," said Burdick. 

County Administrator Verdenia Baker told Contact 5 they've made all more than 1,400 fire rescue employees are going through mandatory sexual harassment re-training.

Burdick said once employees go through the training, they know the rules and if they break them, they should be fired.

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