Firefighter's suit accuses city of bias

Emmett D. Ross says he was falsely accused of a KKK smear and fired because he is African American.

A black Philadelphia firefighter has filed a federal lawsuit, saying he was wrongly accused of putting a pillowcase painted with KKK on a white supervisor's locker.

Emmett D. Ross, who was fired last year and rehired after a labor arbitrator ruled in his favor, said he was dismissed because he is African American.

His firing gained national attention from white-supremacist Web sites, which characterized Ross as a racist.

The suit, filed last week against the city and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, contends that the city knew the charges against Ross were baseless but fired him to placate the white lieutenant.

Ayers said Friday that he had not yet reviewed the suit and could not comment on most of its allegations.

But he rejected the contention that Ross was fired because of his race.

"That's absolutely not true," said Ayers, who also is African American. "That's the furthest thing from the truth."

The incident started in February 2006, when Lt. Joseph Montague found the pillowcase on his locker when he arrived at work at the Engine 9 firehouse in the city's Mount Airy section.

Montague was a local vice president of the Chicago-based Concerned American Fire Fighters Association (CAFFA), which opposes hiring quotas for minorities.

The pillowcase had been lettered with a green marker. It had two eye-holes drawn above the letters KKKAFFA, merging the initials of the Ku Klux Klan with CAFFA.

Montague said at the time that he was frightened because he was being linked to the Klan.

Ross, 37, who has steadfastly denied any involvement in the incident, served in the Marine Corps for eight years and majored in electrical engineering at Norfolk State University before the Fire Department hired him in 2003.

The lawsuit does not say why or how the department concluded Ross had placed the pillowcase on Montague's locker. But it says that Ross, who grew up in Philadelphia, did not have "any prior knowledge of CAFFA" before the pillowcase was found.

The suit also says that though Ross worked at the Engine 9 firehouse, Montague was not his supervisor, and the two had never worked together on the same shift.

Philadelphia police investigated the incident for four months but never sought charges against anyone.

The suit said that during the investigation, Montague appeared on a local radio show and alleged a "coverup" by the department.

"Even though the Fire Department was unable to identify the individual responsible for the incident, it capitulated to the pressure from Lt. Montague and CAFFA," and fired Ross, the suit said.

In announcing Ross' firing, Ayers told reporters that "when people do something as terrible and deplorable as that, this is what they can expect to happen to them."

The suit says that Ayers announced the firing to reporters even before it had become official. It said Ross learned of the commissioner's comments only when he read them in a newspaper while he was at his children's Saturday soccer match.

Ayers said he could not discuss his announcement of Ross' firing.

After Ross was dismissed in June 2006, news of his firing was reprinted on sites as varied as the Philadelphia-based Domelights.com, a Web site frequented by police and firefighters and the Florida-based Web site of the Stormfront White Nationalist Community, which was identified in a November congressional hearing as an international clearinghouse for racist and anti-Semitic literature. It accused Ross of committing a "hate crime" against his boss.

Ross fought to get his job back.

In January, a labor arbitrator heard the evidence from the Fire Department and Ross.

The arbitrator found the city's evidence lacking and ruled in Ross' favor, ordering the city to reinstate him and give him back pay. He is now back at the Engine 9 firehouse.

The suit said that Ross was then hit with "a flurry of hate mail" on Domelights.com and that the city did not reinstate him until five months after the arbitrator's ruling.

The suit asks for the city to pay damages to Ross and to "publicly exonerate him of any wrongdoing in the pillowcase incident."

Ross' lawyer, Harold I. Goodman, said he filed the case because "only this lawsuit can make some stab at restoring his dignity."


Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.