CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Channel 9 discovered leadership at Charlotte Fire Department had firefighters film a commercial for expensive watches while they were on duty and on the taxpayer's dime.
Deputy Fire Chief Rich Granger told Channel 9 that North Carolina Emergency Management asked Charlotte Fire to participate in the Casio watch filming 18 months ago and that Emergency Management would also use the footage to seek grant funding from state lawmakers.
However, after Hurricane Matthew hit in October 2016, Emergency Management told Channel 9 the agency focused on response and never revisited creating a video.
The footage was used to advertise the Casio Mudmaster GG 1000.
"It was a commercial for a watch, a very expensive watch, on fire department grounds using fire department property and fire department time," Battalion Chief Tim Rogers said.
Rogers said he learned of the commercial a year ago, when he received an email about Charlotte Fire's Urban Search and Rescue team from the Transylvania County EMS director, congratulating them on the Casio commercial.
"I was irate. You can't do that," Rogers said. "We can’t use department time and energy to promote a product like that."
Eyewitness News learned that five Charlotte firefighters from Station 10 participated in the filming while on the clock.
CFD said it didn't relocate any trucks to cover Station 10 during that filming.
However, Channel 9 obtained GPS records and truck logs that reveal ladder truck 2 moved from Station 2 on South Boulevard to Station 10 on Wilkinson Boulevard for almost two and half hours during the filming.
CFD initially told Channel 9 that "no compensation of any kind (money, material, etc.) was granted to any employee of the Charlotte Fire Department" because of the video.
However, anchor Allison Latos obtained an email from a month before filming, in which a videographer from the production company told Charlotte Capt. Jeff Bright, "I am happy to get you 10 of these watches and you can give them to whomever you want."
CFD later acknowledged seven Charlotte firefighters received watches at a discounted price of $25 each.
A search of the Casio website shows the watch sells for $320, and Channel 9 found the same price listed online at outdoor retailer, REI.
The city of Charlotte's gift policy defines as a gift as, "anything of economic value, including but not limited to money, discount, promise, favor, special privilege, service, or other property of any kind."
The policy also states, "no city employee shall directly or indirectly solicit or accept any gift with a value of more than fifty dollars".
Becki Gray, with the government watchdog group John Locke Foundation, told Channel 9 she has a problem with the footage.
"The bigger question is whether it's a watch, or a car or a trip, was the gift policy followed and more importantly, were good government policies in place?" Gray said. "It is important that there's not even a perception that there's any kind of pay for play, that there's any kind of special favors being granted with taxpayer resources."
Since September, Latos repeatedly asked CFD about how the department uses resources taxpayers pay for. Latos asked three times for someone to speak on camera about the situation but was told Charlotte Fire declines any interviews.
The Charlotte Fire Department did send a statement:
"The 1,164 men and women of the Charlotte Fire Department are dedicated and skilled fire service professionals who responded to 122,000 calls last year with an average response time of 4 minutes and 34 seconds. First and foremost, they are dedicated to providing the highest level of service to the Charlotte community. As we respect the process of this independent review, we reassert that this review is a matter of personnel and not subject to public release under NCGS 160A-168."
This controversy over the watch discount and filming of that commercial has prompted a Charlotte Fire internal investigation into potential ethical and city rule violations.
"It is a stain on every member," Rogers said.
Rogers claimed after he raised concerns, he faced retaliation when Deputy Chief Rich Granger notified him he was banned from state rescue programs, placed on modified duty and moved from Station 10.
He had received high performance ratings for the past decade and has spent 35 years as a Charlotte firefighter.
"The reason I'm doing this interview, as painful and hard as this is, is nobody else is ever going to go through this," said Rogers. "I hope our leadership will step up."
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is helping with the CFD internal investigation by conducting interviews. CMPD said that work is ongoing.
According to city rules, if the gift policy was violated "appropriate action will be taken against the employee, up to and including termination".
The City of Charlotte released this statement on the matter:
“The Charlotte Fire Department launched an independent review to learn more about this matter. The review is ongoing, and any findings are not subject to public release, pursuant to NCGS 160A-168.”
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