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Race Under Fire

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.

"I told him what had happened had nothing to do with the reason why I was there," Covington wrote. "If what happened affected the way he performs his job he should have stayed home... I thought it was unprofessional of them to have me waiting for over two hours... and that was not the first time the personnel staff had treated me this way. He told me he would not help me."

Covington demanded to see Peg Quinn, then Mendelsohn's supervisor, who was director of the employment and recruitment office. Quinn, now the Fire Department's civilian personnel coordinator,allegedly also confirmed to Covington that "Mendelsohn was very upset at the time" over the Rabin assassination.

"I told her when Martin Luther King was murdered I was very upset, but I had to go on," Covington wrote. "I did not let it interfere with my [job] performance."

According to Covington, Quinn apologized and offered to "reprimand" Mendelsohn, but "I told her that was not necessary." Quinn then copied the document and wrote a letter for Covington on Health and Hospitals Corporation stationery verifying that he had been to the office.Since Covington had already passed his medical test and his educational background checked out, he asked Quinn if she needed any additional information. Quinn allegedly assured Covington that his papers were in order.

"I returned to my commanding station feeling secure," Covington wrote.

(Billig would neither confirm nor deny this account.)

In December 1995, EMS notified Covington by letter that he had been found "not qualified" to be considered for civil service status and that he had been terminated for "falsification of official city forms."

In his letter to the EEOC, Covington denied that he had lied or covered up information about his past. "I strongly believe I was terminated because Mr. Mendelsohn and Ms. Quinn conspired and discriminated against me," he wrote. "They were both responsible for my background investigation. They apparently did not like my reply to Mendelsohn's question. I believe my employment was terminated because I did not empathize with Mendelsohn," he stressed.

Covington filed an appeal to the personnel review board of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which, three months after the incident, had tossed the matter to the Civil Service Commission. An HHC official claimed that the commission had jurisdiction following the merger between EMS and the Fire Department, but the commission has not yet conducted a hearing in Covington's case.

Covington asserted that a hearing would expose the conspiracy that got him fired. "Peg Quinn [could] explain why the Xerox copy of the court disposition she took from me on November 6, 1995, mysteriously never got placed into my file," he argued in the letter to the EEOC. "This court document could have vindicated me," he added. "Can she justify why the document was misplaced and why her department terminated me? Was it a coincidence that the incident occurred during the merger with the Fire Department?"

After the intervention of Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields, who had written three letters to municipal agencies on Covington's behalf, the former EMS worker finally had a meeting with Fire Department officials on June 10, 1998. Attending were David Zweifler, the department's civilian personnel manager; Peg Quinn; John Henry Lewis, DC 37's labor relations specialist; and Denise Outram, Fields's counsel.

At the meeting, Zweifler denied that the Fire Department had any of the records Covington said he had given to the EMS investigators in 1995. But in a shocking twist, Zweifler recommended that Covington be reinstated, providing he passed a physical agility test.

"The Fire Department maintains that it supports the personnel decisions made by other mayoral agencies and non-mayoral agencies," Zweifler stated in a June 11, 1998, follow-up letter to Covington's union representative. "However," he added, "the Fire Department acknowledges the fact that as a result of lacking documentary evidence, it cannot present evidence that substantiates [or] refutes the termination action taken by EMS/HHC. Based solely on this fact, the Fire Department has agreed to reinstate Mr. Covington to the position of Emergency Medical Specialist... if qualified for reinstatement."

The fire department's decision was the first good news Eric Covington had heard in three years. But his exuberance was short-lived. As part of the agreement, Covington submitted to the physical fitness test.

 

On June 20, 1998,he reported the EMS training center in Queens. "When I got there, they told me I had to take a drug test," Covington told the Voice. Despite his angry protest, Covington relented and gave his testers a urine sample. (According to Zweifler's letter, "It was agreed and understood by all parties at [the June 10] meeting that for reinstatement, Mr. Covington must meet all eligibility requirements...including...being cleared by the Department's Bureau of Health Services.")

About a week later, a union representative informed Covington that he had bad news: Covington had tested positive for marijuana. On July 2, the Fire Department officially notified Covington of his "notice of medical disqualification" because of an "unauthorized substance in [his] urine." The people who had fired, then agreed to rehire, Eric Covington now had fired him again. ("Would you want this fellow taking you or your relatives to the hospital in his ambulance?" asked the anonymous Fire Department official.)

Covington wants the EEOC to investigate why Quinn has not recused herself in the ongoing investigation.

"Ironically, the Fire Department has given her the authority to investigate what happened to my file in 1995," he wrote. "Peg Quinn is the only link connecting my files; my background investigation as an EMT; and why I was not qualified for the transfer to the Fire Department. How can she be objective or impartial? ...Peg Quinn clearly tried to destroy me when she fired me from EMS."

Additional reporting by Karen Mahabir


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