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County HR investigation finds 'offensive work environment' inside Palm Beach County Fire Rescue

Chief violated policy by spreading sexual rumors
Posted at 3:44 PM, Dec 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-27 06:31:47-05

The Contact 5 investigators have learned a human resources probe into Palm Beach County Fire Rescue found the department created an “offensive work environment,” and County Human Resource investigators lay the blame at the feet of ranking officers within the department.

Last week, Contact 5 told you about a female fire captain, suing the department and the county, for sexual harassment and retaliation.

A human resources investigation, started by some of her claims, found “sexually oriented rumors are commonplace within the county’s fire rescue department,” and ranking officers are the ones responsible for circulating the rumors.

The county and fire rescue leadership, received a complaint in October 2015, from a county chief, on behalf of Capt. Amanda Vomero. The complaint alleged Division Chief Chris Hoch was making inappropriate sexual comments and spreading rumors about a female captain.

According to county documents obtained by Contact 5, Hoch admits he repeated rumors Capt. Amanda Vomero was having sexual relations with her supervisor, but denied ever mentioning she preferred the supervisor, because of race, as was alleged.

Investigators said he repeated the rumors at least twice, once in front of other staff. 

County investigators went on to say, “other witnesses suggest that is not unusual for rumors to circulate, particularly whenever male and female staff work together. These incidents individually will not likely constitute sexual harassment. However, collectively with the additional incidents of harassing and retaliatory behavior there is sufficient information to conclude that an offensive work environment exists within Fire Rescue.”

Investigators concluded “there was apparent acceptance within the department of such behavior,” saying “all of the substantiated discriminatory and retaliatory behavior occurred within the administrative office suite and involved high ranking administration officers.”

The county’s human resources report goes on to say Hoch also admitted to excluding a staff member, who was believed to have filed the complaint against him, from meetings. Hoch said it was for different, behavioral reasons, but HR said there was no evidence of that. 

Investigators also looked into a claim that Hoch would not let Vomero go on calls with him, called “jumps.” Hoch told investigators this was true, but said it was because of a rumor linking the two of them together.

Another allegation said Hoch made comments about Vomero’s jean size. The report says “Hoch denied the behavior, but does admit having a discussion with the female officer about the current skinny jean fashion trend, stating that he may find it difficult to find such jeans in his size.” 

The report also found evidence, Hoch loudly exclaimed in his office, his intention to identify and take action against person who filed complaint against him.

The 16-month investigation ultimately found Hoch violated county policy. His punishment, a written reprimand and orders to attend training, “related to employee interaction and personal conduct.”

When signing his written reprimand, Hoch wrote that "I am signing this violation out of respect to my chief officers. I still have not received any written documentation from HR concerning what I have been accused of violating after several requests from my attorney over the past year and a half. I reserve the right to add an additional supplement to this document from either my attorney or myself at a future date. By signing this document it does not mean I understand or agree with what I have been accused of violating."

Contact 5 reached out to Hoch for comment. He did not reply as of publication.  Fire Rescue offices are closed through Wednesday and were not available to respond.

As for Vomero, in her lawsuit, filed Dec. 14, she says officials at the county level and within fire rescue did nothing to stop the sexual harassment, with the top chief allegedly calling it "firehouse fun."

Vomero goes on to say she was retaliated against after bringing forward her complaints.

The county and fire rescue said last week, they could not comment on pending litigation.