Weenie Roast

Firefighters' prank was only marginally funny. And the taxpayers got hosed.

Sometimes The Spike just wants to bang its pointy little head against a brick wall. The one at Phoenix's downtown Fire Station 1 will do nicely this time.

What's got The Spike in a lather this week is a recent federal court judgment against the City of Phoenix to settle what is really a locker-room prank that's blazed out of control. When the tab is finally paid, this incident could well cost the taxpayers close to half a million bucks.

The burning issue here involves a penis. Paul Klusman's penis, to be exact. Or so he thought.

In 1996 (yes, this case has actually been dragging on for six years) Klusman was an engineer at Fire Station 1. He'd been there since 1971 — that's 25 years — so The Spike is thinking he must have known the kinds of stunts that guys — especially guys in close quarters — are apt to carry out.

Some of the guys didn't like Klusman. The Spike figured this out from the crude cartoon someone drew of a guy with a large sexual organ. And, The Spike is forced to say for journalistic reasons: Get it? He's a big dick.

The Spike also gleaned a few facts from the two very thick volumes of legal files that this case has become. Klusman opines that the disgruntlement stems from his outspoken views about proposed overtime limits, or perhaps because he objected to the way a bid for new breathing apparatus was being handled.

Whatever. One day, Klusman found two drawings on top of his locker. They depicted a man with a very large penis. In one, the man, presumably a firefighter, was wearing a hat labeled "U1-A." That stands for "Utility Truck 1, A Shift."

Klusman's truck. Klusman's shift.

Two days later, two more drawings.

Klusman complained to his boss, then-Captain Pat Cantelme, as well as to Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini.

Cantelme told the guys to knock it off. And they did. Mostly.

The Spike needs to point out that the penis pictures appeared just as another beloved firefighter, deputy chief Hoot Gibson, was essentially being given the boot after 36 years for taking the whole locker-room prank thing a bit too far. Gibson's tastes ran mainly to wet willies, wedgies, knuckle rubs. At one point, he drew a circle on the ceiling above his chair and liked to tell people that was where a, we'll just say, hefty woman who worked upstairs might come crashing through one day. She complained to City Hall about that and other atrocities, including the fact that Gibson was paying unearned overtime to firefighter trainees. Shameless.

Klusman continued to rub some people the wrong way, and he eventually found two more "sexually explicit" drawings, as he called them, stuffed through the vents of his locker. These were done on a computer.

Klusman complained again. He gave the drawings — all six of them — to fire officials so they could be dusted for fingerprints.

And this time he added new offenses: Sometimes he'd come to work to find that someone had been smoking in his truck, even though they knew that he was a fervent anti-smoker. A few times he found his beddinggone. And someone kept taking his TV remote so he couldn't change channels without getting out of bed.

It was then that The Spike, sitting in the new Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse (it was early, so the coolers were working pretty well), came up with a possible headline for this story: Big Weenie.

In May 1997, about a year after the first drawings appeared, Klusman was transferred "for the good of the department" as well as himself. He ended up at Station 24 on the west side. But Klusman contended that, among other things, he was losing money because he wasn't getting as much overtime pay as he had at the downtown station.

In 1998, he filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, which strikes The Spike as unusual because the doodlers in this case obviously were not seeking sexual favors. They just didn't like him. Still, there is that provision about a hostile work environment. Klusman wanted back pay, lost wages, reinstatement to his old station, and compensation for pain, suffering and emotional distress.

Indeed, Klusman hired a psychologist who found the shenanigans caused an "adjustment disorder" that includes "depressed mood, irritability, inability to sleep, rumination and strained interpersonal relationships."

Rumination? If that means thinking too much, heck, The Spike has that. And The Spike is betting those personal relationships were strained well before someone stuffed some drawings into a locker.

Still, last month, federal Judge Thomas Zilly found in favor of Klusman and awarded him $30,000 for emotional distress, plus $2,500 for future medical costs.

The big zinger to taxpayers, however, could come through attorneys fees and court costs, which Zilly ordered the losers (that would be the City of Phoenix) to pay. Four years of legal wrangling isn't cheap. Klusman's attorney, Michael Pruitt of Mesa, has filed for nearly $200,000 in fees and costs.

The city hired an outside firm, Gaona Moore, to handle the defense. No one from the defense team returned The Spike's call, but The Spike is guessing their hourly rate is as high, if not higher (it is public money, after all).

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