Fourteen plaintiffs from Ricci v. DeStefano advanced in rank in the New Haven Fire Dept.


New Haven Register, Conn.

Posted: Fri, 12/11/2009 - 09:39
Updated: Fri, 12/11/2009 - 09:51

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Frank Ricci, a firefighter whose name became synonymous with a six-year legal fight for a ********* he believed was improperly denied, received his lieutenant's badge Thursday.

He was joined by 13 other members of the so-called New Haven 20.

In the audience, the lawyer who brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court sat in the front row, wiping away tears as her clients walked by.

"The important thing to remember is 14 plaintiffs are getting their badges today, but it took 20 to make history," Ricci said Thursday afternoon as he prepared to march into the packed auditorium at Wilbur Cross High School.

In all, 24 people advanced in rank in the largest department promotional ceremony in a decade: 14 plaintiffs from Ricci v. DeStefano, and 10 other firefighters who scored well on the 2003 exams but didn't join the lawsuit filed after the city threw out the results.

A 25th member of the department was promoted to the fire marshal's office.

"It's been a long road, a lot of stress, but it is a wonderful day," said Michael Blatchley, who earned his lieutenant's badge.

On stage, Mayor John DeStefano Jr., whose administration defended the decision to scrap the Civil Service exam results all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, offered praise for "the training, experience, character and sacrifice of these 25 officers" and expressed confidence they would be up to the challenge.

In his only apparent reference to the six-year controversy, he added, "It is a challenge that we all acknowledge -- that I acknowledge -- has been earned by them."

Afterward, DeStefano said Thursday was a good day for the firefighters, for the department and for the city.

Luis Rivera, a new captain, had doubted the day would ever arrive.

"I'm grateful that it finally came, but I honestly didn't think it was going to happen. It's been a long six years," said Rivera, who didn't sue, but ultimately benefited from the legal fight of the one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters who did.

Capt. Ben Vargas, the lone Hispanic in the case said, "I always thought we were doing the right thing. Did I always think it was going to happen? I don't know. It was like a roller coaster ride for me. So many highs and lows."

The 20 sued in 2004, claiming the city violated their rights when it threw out results from two exams because few blacks scored high. Their lawsuit was dismissed in 2006, and the decision was upheld in 2008 on appeal.

They petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in June the high court ruled in their favor. When a final order was issued last month, the city moved quickly to promote those firefighters who would have been eligible based on vacancies that existed between 2004 and 2006. Two 11th-hour attempts by a group of eight black firefighters to preempt the promotions failed. The last motion was denied Wednesday.

The city in 2004 argued the tests for lieutenant and captain should be thrown out because the results might leave the city vulnerable to a lawsuit from black firefighters for violations under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the tests were scrapped, the white firefighters brought a discrimination complaint.

Three African Americans ultimately became eligible when additional vacancies opened. And two Hispanics advanced Thursday.

In the audience, Mary Katherine Christoforo, whose husband, Michael, made lieutenant, remembered the effort he put into studying, halting his second job as a landscaper and skipping summer vacation.

"He was devastated when they were going to throw the test out, but these guys really fought for what they believed in."

Karen Torre, the lawyer for the New Haven 20, said it was "emotional" seeing her clients march in to receive long overdue promotions as the bagpipes played.

"It really hit me then. They overcame so many forces that tried to keep those badges off of them for so long," said Torre. It was also emotional to see the black firefighters get their badges "because I think they were lost in the story of this case."

Afterward, Capt. Jack Ryan, one of the non-plaintiffs to advance, approached her.

"Thank you," he said. "None of this would have happened if it wasn't for you."

Many spoke of moving on and moving forward. Capt. Gary Carbone, one of the plaintiffs, said the stories of a deep racial divide in the department were overblown. Most people got along and worked together well, and any problems were limited to "individual disagreements." He said he harbored no grudges.

Lt. Edward Riordan, one of the white plaintiffs who wasn't promoted Thursday, pinned a lieutenant badge on Tyrone Ewing, a black firefighter who worked with him for the better part of a decade. Riordan said he was honored to be asked.

Some wounds still remain, however. In 2004, Vargas was attacked from behind in a bar bathroom and still believes it was retaliation by a black firefighter for joining the fight to have the tests certified.

"I grew up in Fair Haven, so I know a lot of people who know what really happened, but what you can prove?" he said. The promotions provided an additional satisfaction. "This hurts them more than a sucker punch to the face."

JoAnne Watkins hoped promotions and time would bring healing. Her son James, a black firefighter who argued for the tests to be tossed, was promoted to lieutenant.

"They're all out there doing the same thing, saving lives and putting out fires," she said. "I just really hope, even with the controversies, that the brotherhood, the family comes back together. I just hope this is over. I'm hoping and praying that it is, anyway."

Promoted to captain were: Matthew Marcarelli, Brian Jooss, Timothy Scanlon, John Ryan, William Gambardella, Gary Carbone, Vargas and Luis Rivera.

Advancing to lieutenant were Gregory Boivin, Timothy Kieley, Sean Reynolds, Gary Cole, Bruce Galaski, Ricci, Blatchley, Christoforo, Steven Durand, Mark Vendetto, Ryan DiVito, Thayer Baldwin, Christopher Parker, Ewing, James Watkins and Terrence Rountree.

Promoted to inspector/investigator was Todd Kornacki.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service