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Chief Gregory Lawrence is suing the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport Fire Department for the second time. He alleges he was wrongfully terminated by the department in March.

In March, acting Fire Chief Gregory Lawrence was fired from the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport Fire Department. The termination came after a state audit found irregularities with items such as the mileage reported on fuel reimbursement forms and Lawrence’s use of his identification badge to swipe in and out of work. Lawrence has sued the department over his termination, the second time he has sued the department, and his supporters allege his firing was in retaliation for his efforts to increase the representation of African-Americans in the fire service.

Lawrence, a Salisbury, Md. native, is a retired Marine Corps airfield service officer, who at one point headed both Kona International Airport and Hilo International Airport in Hawaii. In 2001, hoping to find work closer to his mother who had fallen ill in Maryland, Lawrence applied for a position with the BWI Fire Department but was not hired. After learning that he may have been discriminated against during the hiring process, Lawrence sued the department for racial discrimination, a suit which was settled in 2006, resulting in Lawrence taking over the position of deputy chief at BWI in 2007.

In July 2013, Lawrence was involved in a minor car accident in his state-issued vehicle. He had stopped to pick up his prescription glasses from the Veterans Administration while on his way to work, a use of his vehicle the state claims was improper because it was personal in nature rather than official.

The accident sparked an audit of Lawrence’s activities during his tenure at BWI, which alleged Lawrence had at various times either under- and over-reported the mileage on his vehicle for the purpose of fuel reimbursements, or that he had used his identification card to swipe into work on days he was scheduled to be off, among other irregularities. These irregularities were the stated grounds for Lawrence’s firing in March.

Since then, a number of civil rights and Black fire fighters’ organizations have rallied around Lawrence, convinced his firing was racially motivated, stemming both from his earlier discrimination suit as well as his work with the Southeast chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF).

According to Henry Burris, a 36 year retired veteran of the Baltimore City Fire Department who serves as 2nd vice president of Administration and Internal Affairs for the Vulcan Blazers – Baltimore City’s chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF) – Lawrence was an active member of the IABPFF during his tenure at BWI where he worked to help increase diversity at the airport and in other Maryland counties such as Anne Arundel.

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Chief Gregory Lawrence is suing the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport Fire Department for the second time. He alleges he was wrongfully terminated by the department in March.

Burris believes Lawrence’s firing was a result of his work to increase diversity in the fire service as well as his being an African-American, and that it had nothing to do with the irregularities discovered in the audit. “I think it (the firing) deals with the fact that he is an African-American and there are those in the occupation of fire service do not like their leaders to be of African descent,” Burris said to the AFRO.

Theodore Robb, a retired 27 year veteran of the BWI Fire Department, said he provided Lawrence with the documents he needed to sue BWI for discrimination in 2004. Robb said Lawrence wasn’t supported by his superiors or subordinates. “I can attest that he was harassed by – it was the union, Local 1742, some of the membership,” Robb to the AFRO. “They didn’t accept him at the very beginning coming through the door because he was an outsider, but it was double jeopardy being African-American.”

Robb claims that some of the leadership in Local 1742 refused to negotiate Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with Lawrence, a claim which William Gordon, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1742 denies, noting that the authority to negotiate MOUs with the union rested with state officials of higher rank than Lawrence. “He doesn’t have the ability to negotiate ,” Gordon said to the AFRO. “We never refused to negotiate with him; he just doesn’t have the ability to negotiate with us.”

According to Lawrence’s lawyer, Alan Legum, some of the reasons cited by the state for Lawrence’s firing fail to take into account his position as chief and an emergency first responder. “They say he swiped in, or he used his state vehicle, on a day that he was supposed to be off,” said Legum. “But he worked days that he was off, he’s the fire chief.”

Administrative Law Judge Nancy Page is currently considering whether Lawrence’s suit should proceed to trial, or be dismissed as a matter of law. Her decision will be delivered on June 30.

 

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO