Race Under Fire

'New York's Bravest' Said It Refused To Hire a Black Paramedic Because He Lied and Used Drugs. He Says Discrimination Kept Him From Moving Up the Ladder.

Eric Leroy Covington contends that had he not made it appear that he was being insensitive to a Jewish personnel investigator who was upset over the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin almost four years ago, he might be a member of the Fire Department today.

Instead, Covington, a 43-year-old former paramedic, who wascompleting an application to become a civil service employee in the wake of the proposed merger between the Emergency Medical Service and the Fire Department when he was fired in 1995 for allegedly falsifying documents, has waged a bitter four-year battle with the city to get his job back.

On April 12, after failing to nudge the bureaucrats, Covington filed a racial discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arguing that the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which ran the EMS, had no just cause to dismiss him. He has asked the federal civil rights agency to file suit against the HHC; the Fire Department; and his union, the scandal-ridden District Council 37, which allegedly did not fairly represent him.

The EEOC complaint caps a hostile six-year relationship between Covington and his supervisors. EMS records dating back to 1992, four years after Covington joined the agency, showed that he repeatedly had been counseled or warned about misconduct that included alleged "excessive lateness," absenteeism, driving his ambulance "in an unsafe manner," and arguing with dispatchers. In 1994, Covington was cited for insubordination for refusing to submit to random drug testing by the Inspectional Services Unit.

"[H]e remained 'paranoid,' questioning the security which would be afforded to his urine sample..." according to one report prepared by Fern G. Vasile, then EMS acting labor relations director.

Covington later tested "positive for cocaine use" and was placed on a medical leave of absence without pay. He returned to duty in May 1994 after undergoing three random drug tests, which showed he was clean.

A former operating room technician in the Army Reserve, Covington blames his problems on a vendetta against blacks and Latinos in the EMS, and on a white backlash against minority hiring during the Giuliani administration's controversial push four years ago to merge the EMS and the Fire Department. "At the last minute they told us we had to become civil service employees," Covington recalls. He charges that the city's fire force, which, according to a recent Daily News investigation, is 93.9 percent white—"making it the least diverse of any major city in the nation"—has created obstacles for blacks who've considered moving up the ladder.

Covington accused Neil Mendelsohn and Peg Quinn, two former EMS officials, of initiating charges that he deliberately concealed a 1974 criminal court case in which he was involved. (Neither Mendelsohn nor Quinn could be reached for comment.) Covingtontold the Voice that the confusion was the result of a judicial error he thought had been resolved.He says he was 21 years old in 1974 when he was picked up during a controversial NYPD sweep of 116th Street and Eighth Avenue—then a drug-infested corner in Harlem.Covington, who was a liberal arts major at Baruch College at the time, recalls that he was on his way to visit friends when he was stopped. He was charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, which the judge promptly dismissed.

In November 1995, during a background check to determine his eligibility for a permanent civil service appointment, a personnel investigator summoned Covington to the EMS employment and recruitment office in Maspeth, Queens, claiming that the agency did not have information regarding a final disposition in the 1974 court case.

"The document from criminal court was the only thing standing [in the way of] me being qualified as a civil service employee," Covington explained in his letter to the EEOC.

David Billig, a Fire Department spokesman, told the Voice that he contacted department officials about Covington's specific charges, but no one responded.But late Monday, one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Everybody was automatically transferred after the merger, regardless of their record."

In that case, Eric Covington feels, he was singled out.

On November 6, 1995, two days after Rabin was slain at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to his peace negotiations with Palestinians, Covington went to the employment and recruitment office armed with the final disposition of the court, which had found in his favor.

"After waiting over two hours," he wrote, "I observed I was the only person waiting. I asked a lady sitting at her desk if I could get a copy of my court disposition paper [because] I needed to leave the copy for my file. I also needed verification in writing from the department that I was there [since] I was still on duty and had to give an account of my whereabouts."

He claimed that the woman directed him to Mendelsohn, the personnel investigator who was looking into his past. Covington stated that he protested the long delay, and again asked Mendelsohn if he would make a copy of the document and return the original to him, along witha letter stating he had been to the office.

"Do you know what happened?" he quoted Mendelsohn as saying. Covington told the Voice that he then became aware that Mendelsohn, who is Jewish, was referring to the Rabin assassination, which had plunged Israel into a state of grief.

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