Lawsuit claims St. Paul fire chief let ‘poorly performing recruits’ he knew graduate, despite training staff advice

A former lead instructor for the St. Paul Fire Department’s Fire Academy has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the department’s top two officials and the city, claiming they interfered in the safe and proper training of trainees and allowed "poorly performing recruits" with whom they had personal connections to graduate from the training academy.

Jovan Palmieri filed the lawsuit against Barton "Butch" Inks, the chief of St. Paul Fire Department, Assistant Chief Michael Gaede and the city of St. Paul in District Court on Monday. Palmieri began working in the department as a firefighter in 2000, became the lead instructor at the fire academy in 2016, was a captain and then promoted to interim fire training officer and paramedic in 2017 and then was promoted to district chief in 2018 while holding the title of fire training officer and paramedic until he was "constructively discharged" in 2019, the lawsuit states.

In the lawsuit, Palmieri alleges that he met with Inks and Gaede in 2018 about overriding training staff recommendations and reviews of poorly performing recruits, but they overrode his recommendations and said they had a problem with what he was reporting. The lawsuit adds that Gaede impliedly threatened Palmieri to keep quiet.

In one such instance where they overrode training staff recommendations, the lawsuit states that a recruit panicked in live-fire exercises and couldn’t even hold a standard attack fire hose line while it was flowing with water. The lawsuit says in nearly all instances where Inks and Gaede overrode Palmieri’s and the training staff’s recommendations, the recruits went on to graduate from the academy against the training staff’s advice, which endangered fellow firefighters, the recruits and the public.

According to the lawsuit, Inks also threatened the promotion of one of Palmieri’s staff members if she continued to voice concerns about the performance of some recruits in 2018.

The lawsuit also alleges that Inks and Gaede intentionally gutted the training staff, and by June 2019, Palmieri was the only staff officer left in the training division. It adds that the resulting ratio of firefighters to training staff was 450 to one. They also allegedly limited Palmieri to working only eight hours per day to complete the work of three training division officers, creating significant lapses and inadequate training of firefighters.

Palmieri also alleges that when he voiced staffing concerns to Gaede, Gaede said Palmieri had crossed the line and mocked him by saying, "Oh, someone’s going to die."

In the lawsuit, Palmieri says he submitted a detailed report to the city outlining his concerns about Inks’ and Gaede’s small training division but the report was dismissed and no corrective action was taken.

Palmieri also alleges Inks and Gaede retaliated against him in various ways over several years for repeatedly reporting issues he saw.

KSTP reached out to the city of St. Paul and the St. Paul Fire Department for comment, they have not yet responded.