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Lawyers: Three former Palm Beach County Fire Chiefs plan to sue county

Posted at 5:43 PM, Feb 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-09 11:47:46-05

Lawyers for three former Palm Beach County Fire Rescue chiefs claim they are going to sue the county. Attorneys at Berman and Berman told Contact 5 at a news conference Thursday they would be suing under "several claims," but they wouldn't say what those claims are.

Attorneys Sarah Cabarcas-Osman and Salim Punjani say they will go to court to prove Palm Beach County leaders had a "civil conspiracy against their clients," but refused to say what evidence they have of that conspiracy. They only said former chiefs Chris Hoch, Thomas Tolbert, and Jeff Collins, want their jobs back.

Together, former district chief Chris Hoch, former deputy chief Thomas Tolbert, and former chief administrator Jeff Collins have 70 years of service in fire rescue. 

But their lawyers claim the county rewarded them, by treating them illegally. Sources tell Contact 5 chiefs Tolbert and Collins resigned because the county felt they didn't handle sexual harassment complaints properly, and in some cases, may have allowed it to happen.

Watch the full news conference here: 

Collins tried to take back that resignation last month, saying he was forced to quit under duress. For the first time Thursday, lawyers for Tolbert say he was also forced to resign. 

"All three chiefs followed all county procedures and responded to any allegations of unlawful sexual behavior promptly and decisively," according to Sarah Cabarcas-Osman. 

But according to a county HR investigation, completed in early 2017 after captain Amanda Vomero complained of sexual harassment at the hands of chief Hoch, Hoch "admitted to repeating sexual rumors about her," and another chief. Captain Vomero is currently suing the county.

Contact 5 asked Sarah Cabarcas-Osman about a line from the HR investigation that said Hoch "does admit that he repeated the rumors about the female officer having a relationship with her current supervisor and one with him."  She said felt that statement was misstated, but when told it was word for word, she said "everything was done as it should be done. Whatever he did, he did correctly to stop the spread of rumors." However, the HR investigation says Hoch gave no indication "he took any action to prevent further circulation of the rumors." 

Hoch's lawyer said, "there are some issues with the HR investigation that was completed."

Earlier in the conference, Sarah Cabarcas-Osman had said "the internal investigation conducted within Palm Beach County Fire Rescue upholding Vomero’s allegations was handled unfairly and improperly, adding "the chiefs’ claims will expose a corrupt and bias investigation supported and endorsed by Palm Beach County." 

Lawyers at Berman and Berman say they plan to question the county's administrator, as well as other top officials when they sue. "We believe the depositions will, unfortunately, unravel a poorly executed civil conspiracy to fire these chiefs," but said more details are forthcoming. 

When asked for further specific information as to why the three would be the subject of a conspiracy. Sarah Osman said, "I’m sure when we plead that we’ll go ahead and make sure we have factual allegations that the men were specifically targeted."

The county says they did receive a notice of potential claims but said they do not have to provide Contact 5 with a copy because of state law. Lawyers at Berman and Berman acknowledge they have not filed an intent to sue yet.

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