Firefighters allege O’Brien controversy led to firings

by Tom Nash on December 15, 2010

Two brothers dismissed from the Somerville Fire Department are appealing to the state after what they say was a reaction by the city to a firefighter candidate’s appeal that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the city’s hiring process.

Ryan and Sean Layton both claimed “residency preference” when they took the state’s civil service exam for firefighter positions in 2008, which gives an advantage over those who are not Somerville residents. After the city approved their status during its initial background check in 2009, a second look following candidate Sean O’Brien’s controversial appeal led the city to fire both.

In a procedural order issued last week, state Civil Service Commissioner Chris Bowman said the motion hearing for the two Layton cases will be heard Feb. 7 at Somerville City Hall, “in an effort to ensure the greatest level of transparency possible.”

‘Allegations of nepotism’

O’Brien, a former Marine who served in Iraq, took the civil service test upon his return from duty in 2009. His Somerville residency and disabled veteran status, combined with his score, should have put him at the top position on the eligible list.

Instead, the city repeatedly requested a renewal of the list that did not include him in the top spot, culminating in a Feb. 24 Board of Aldermen Confirmation of Appointments Committee meeting that saw 10 candidates appointed without the members being informed the city had just minutes before successfully kept O’Brien and another candidate from being ordered into the No. 1 and No. 4 positions.

O’Brien filed an appeal with the state, and in September Bowman ordered O’Brien to be placed at the top of the list of candidates a second time – although he was not among the candidates selected by the city last week for Board of Aldermen approval.

O’Brien’s father-in-law, former Ward 7 alderman Andrew Puglia, has managed O’Brien’s case during the appeal process. During an impassioned speech before the Board of Aldermen in November, Puglia alluded to political connections playing a role in the process.

Shortly after Puglia spoke, Mayor Joe Curtatone defended his administration’s handling of O’Brien’s candidacy.

“I challenge anyone … to find something wrong with what we’ve done,” Curtatone told the board.

In part of Puglia’s correspondence with the city, contained in the Civil Service Commission’s case file, he alleges a system of corruption that involves firefighter candidates lying about where they live with the help of fire department and city officials.

In an e-mail encouraging city attorneys to resolve O’Brien’s appeal, Puglia wrote, “I sincerely hope we can arrive at a satisfactory resolution of this matter and avoid what could prove to be a very costly, embarrassing and very damaging situation for the Somerville city government.”

The Layton brothers, who filed separate cases with the state Human Resources Division but are being represented by the same attorney, are alleging that renewed scrutiny in the wake of O’Brien’s case has unfairly cost them their jobs.

According to a procedural order written by Bowman, who ruled that O’Brien deserved to remain at the top of the city’s eligible list and was entitled to retroactive seniority, the Laytons are accusing the city of reacting to Puglia’s “indication that allegations of nepotism would be part of any future bypass hearing” by firing them.

Their father, Stephen Layton, is a Somerville firefighter. According to Bowman, both Layton’s sons initially passed residency checks, but a second review that occurred after the O’Brien controversy erupted determined “based on largely the same information” that neither had satisfied the one-year residency requirement.

Both brothers had listed 23 Lincoln St. as their Somerville address. They do not, however, appear in the 2007 city census data that would indicate they were living there a year prior to taking the April 2008 civil service exam. There is also a Wilmington address for which they are both listed as members of the household.

The Laytons’ attorney, Paul Hynes, said neither he nor the family would comment on pending litigation. O’Brien and Somerville Fire Local 76 Union President Jay Colbert also declined comment.

Other discrepancies

A review of the state-issued list relating to O’Brien’s and Laytons’ complaints shows other discrepancies similar to the situation presented in the Laytons’ case.

Four other current firefighters who appeared on that list gave Somerville addresses that do not match city census records for the time period required for residency preference status. At least three of those four current firefighters are listed at an address in nearby cities, including Medford and Woburn.

Mayoral spokesman Michael Meehan stressed city census data is only a “best-faith effort to keep tabs on that info.”

“There are significant gaps,” Meehan said. “It’s not terribly surprising the city census wouldn’t capture all that data.”

‘We took action’

City Personnel Director Jessie Baker said she relies on Somerville Police Department detectives to check the accuracy of candidates’ residency claims. While she said city census data may not match what candidates listed as their addresses, the detectives scour a wide variety of sources.

In addition to census data, Baker said detectives check vehicle registrations, utility bills, other job applications and also venture into neighborhoods to verify addresses.

“Not only do we find out if the electricity bill is in [a candidate’s] name, we look to see if the power is actually being used,” she added.

In the wake of the O’Brien controversy, however, Baker said the city checked the candidates from the 2009 list again. The firing of Ryan and Sean Layton came shortly after, although she would not explain the decision.

“If we get new information, we take that into consideration,” she said. “We took action and [the Laytons] are no longer employed by the city.”

“Given the scrutiny, we are being diligent about any discrepancies,” Meehan said. “[This group of candidates] has probably been scrutinized as much as anybody has in in this city.”

Meehan maintains the city is confident that the Laytons are the only firefighters who did not stand up to that renewed scrutiny.

“No matter who you know, you have to be truthful on that application,” he said. “If you weren’t, that’s the end of your employment with the City of Somerville.”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Barry Rafkind December 15, 2010 at 3:16 PM

Excellent piece of journalism, Tom!

It’s hard to miss the contrast between the exceptional diligence the City claimed to have performed in firing the Layton brothers on the one hand… and on the other hand there’s the alleged lack of diligence undertaken during their initial hiring process and in the handling of O’Brien. It sounds like due diligence is selectively employed only when it suits political aims.

If the City goes through the trouble of doing background checks on prospective fire-fighters, you’d think they would at least update their census records with the information collected.

It would be interesting to know whether the collected records are kept on file as evidence of the background checks. Tom, have you looked? The City ought to explain why the problem with the Layton brothers’ residencies weren’t discovered during their background checks.

So will O’Brien be hired now that there are new vacancies in the fire department?

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