The investigation of a high-ranking Scottsdale official came on suddenly. It ended just as fast with his termination on his 20th anniversary.
Now, Jeff Fisher claims he was fired for blowing the whistle on a nightclub owned by a city firefighter and union president.
It started with a Monday morning e-mail criticizing the city’s embattled code enforcement department.
Two days later, there was an afternoon e-mail to the Tribune tipping off the newspaper to apparent code violations against Drinx, a downtown nightclub owned by Scottsdale Fire Department union leader Steve Springborn.
By Thursday of that week, Fisher was put on administrative leave. The next day, he was fired.
So went the last workweek for the city’s former planning and development services director.
Fisher was terminated Sept. 14 for sending private Yahoo account e-mails from his work computer, including one in which he impersonated another city employee, according to the city’s termination letter.
But Fisher’s attorney, Phil Flemming, in a letter to the city, says Scottsdale violated the state law that protects whistleblowers. The letter states that in June, Fisher issued a stop-work order against Drinx for building a rooftop deck without a permit. Fisher then sent an e-mail to other city employees, alerting them that Drinx violated the law and that he had public safety concerns, such as for an inadequate fire escape.
Flemming’s letter states Fisher’s concerns about Drinx’s violations were “a matter of public concern” and he reasonably believed there was “a violation of law and mismanagement or abuse of authority,” meaning the city’s firing was a wrongful termination.
The letter also says Fisher was questioned by the city about the Sept. 12 e-mail sent to the Tribune that revealed potentially more Drinx violations. Fisher denies sending the e-mail.
“It also appears that Mr. Fisher may have been terminated because he was thought to be a 'leak’ although there is no evidence to support that,” Flemming wrote.
Flemming’s Oct. 12 letter demanded Fisher be reinstated or be paid 1½ times his salary to avoid a lawsuit. The city responded Nov. 8, saying Flemming’s account is not accurate and reiterating that Fisher’s departure was because of a misuse of his computer system and not related to the e-mail to the Tribune.
Scottsdale officials declined to be interviewed, agreeing only to provide written answers to submitted questions.
Springborn, the Drinx owner and city firefighter, did not return phone calls.
Fisher also declined to comment, referring questions to his attorney.
“We think it’s strange that a 20-year employee that had exceptional service was fired, and all they would say is a few lines that you are terminated for misuse of the computer and no explanation given as to what their investigation revealed,” Flemming told the Tribune.
A Tribune review of Fisher’s performance evaluations showed he had received exemplary reviews in the past by a number of different bosses and was promoted through the ranks over two decades. In a review from April, chief development officer Michael Clack wrote that Fisher excelled in responding to council and citizen concerns and maintained a professional atmosphere.
Councilman Tony Nelssen, a longtime north Scottsdale resident, said he worked with Fisher over the years on various code enforcement and sign ordinance issues.
“I respected him, felt he was a loyal, productive city employee and was just as surprised at the news as everybody else,” Nelssen said.
Nelssen said he’s asked questions, but does not have any hard evidence to substantiate the allegations that the city terminated him because they saw him as a “leak.”
“There’s a lot of innuendo,” Nelssen said. “The more questions you ask, the more questions you walk away with.”
The city’s investigation found that Fisher’s user ID was the only one in the city using Yahoo e-mail at the time the message to code enforcement was sent. Five Yahoo accounts and several Yahoo documents were found on his computer. And at least one e-mail appeared to originate from another employee, who had not accessed Yahoo accounts on a city computer since May.
A Sept. 10 e-mail from “firstname.lastname@example.org” was received by the City Council, criticizing the code enforcement staff and pointing to a number of supposed violations around town. This is the same staff that was blasted in a city audit in January.
Code enforcement manager Malcolm Hankins replied to the e-mail, saying he’d look into the cases. It is not clear in city documents who forwarded the e-mail to Hankins.
When the Yahoo account owner replied back to Hankins, the name of another city employee appeared next to the “email@example.com” address, according to the city investigation. The city will not release that employee’s name.
“This prompted the city to investigate who was using an employee’s name on an outside account and to determine where the e-mail originated,” wrote city spokesman Pat Dodds in explaining why an investigation was launched and how it led to Fisher’s computer.
The city says the Sept. 12 e-mail to the Tribune about Drinx had no relevance to Fisher’s termination. Dodds wrote that it was only included in the investigative documents because it was in Fisher’s e-mail box.
“It was among the documents examined by the city, but the name of the recipient and the content had no relevance whatsoever to the reasons for Mr. Fisher’s dismissal,” Dodds wrote.
However, this was the only e-mail from his city account “in” box that was included in the investigative documents provided to the Tribune.
THE DRINX CONNECTION
In June, Fisher e-mailed a number of city employees — including Fire Chief William McDonald — to let them know city inspectors had issued a notice ordering Drinx to immediately stop construction on a club rooftop expansion at 7330 E. Stetson because a proper building permit had not been obtained.
Springborn had not been granted a permit for his rooftop deck because of concerns of safety and accessibility issues, including it did not having adequate stairwell access in the event of a fire or emergency, according to a city chronology of contacts with Drinx.
Springborn, nonetheless, started construction. He told the Tribune in July he had downsized the plans and believed a building permit was no longer required. The Tribune published a story about the situation on July 14.
In September, Drinx’s actions once again caught the attention of the building inspection department. According to a trail of city e-mails forwarded to the Tribune on Sept. 12 from Fisher’s account, a designer was inquiring about how to plumb a sink on the rooftop at Drinx. A building inspection supervisor decided to investigate, a move backed by Fisher, according to the e-mail.
Clack instructed three of his employees how to handle the situation. Clack said to leave a written notice that no work on the roof of that building is to be done without a permit. Clack wanted an inspector to go by on a daily basis to observe any nonpermitted work being done. Clack also called on city staff members to flag the address so no permits could be issued without his approval. Clack wrote: “Given the past history with this address I want to make sure that whatever is done there is in compliance with all codes and ordinances.”
A city investigation found no work had been done at Drinx and, once again, the club was advised that no work should be done without first obtaining a permit. To date, no building permits have been issued for exterior remodeling.
According to the investigative documents, shortly after that e-mail was sent by Clack to Fisher and six other city employees, the e-mail was forwarded from Fisher’s city account to the Tribune with a short note that made reference to the Tribune’s July story and quoted Councilman Bob Littlefield’s past support of Springborn’s liquor license application.
Littlefield said he did support the liquor application and creation of the municipal fire department. Springborn had led an unsuccessful 2003 campaign to create a city-run fire department. The private Rural/Metro Fire Department, however, pulled out a short time later and a city department became operational in 2005. But Littlefield said the only way he knew Springborn was having code problems was from e-mails sent to him.
“(Springborn) didn’t ask for anything and I didn’t ask (City Manager) Jan (Dolan) to do anything,” Littlefield said.
Doug Flack retired as a code enforcement inspector in February after working for the city for 21 years. In March, the city brought him back as a public works inspector contract employee for an expected one-year term.
However, Flack was let go less than a week after Fisher was fired. In response to a public records request, the city says because Flack was a contract employee, it was not required to provide any documentation giving a reason for terminating his contract.
Flack said he met with assistant city manager Neal Shearer and planning and development services general manager Frank Gray — who both signed Fisher’s termination letter — on Sept. 14. That was the day Fisher was fired. Flack had two more off-site meetings before his contract was terminated.
In a written response, Dodds said Flack was interviewed because his city computer had accessed Yahoo e-mail accounts related to the Yahoo e-mail sent from Fisher’s computer.
Flack said during the meetings he was grilled about Fisher, his boss for many years.
Flack said he believes the city considered Fisher a whistleblower and suspects his tie to Fisher was the reason the city no longer wanted him around.
Still, Flack said he didn’t understand why they were asking about Fisher and their relationship, considering Fisher had already been terminated.
“That’s the puzzle in this whole thing for me,” Flack said.
Sept. 14, 1987: Jeff Fisher hired by Scottsdale as zoning inspector
Sept. 10, 2007: An e-mail was sent from a private Yahoo account to the City Council, pointing out alleged code enforcement violations and criticizing code department leaders. The city investigation concluded a follow-up e-mail showed it came from an unnamed city employee but it was from Fisher’s computer.
Sept. 11: The e-mail was sent from City Manager Jan Dolan upon request to assistant city manager Neal Shearer, who led the investigation.
Sept. 12: An e-mail from Fisher’s public city account is sent to the Tribune, forwarding a trail of city e-mails discussing supposed violations at Drinx nightclub owned by city firefighter Steve Springborn. The Tribune previously reported on Drinx in July.
Sept. 13: Fisher is placed on administrative leave.
Sept. 14: Fisher is terminated for misuse of his computer system.
Sept. 19: Contract employee and former code enforcement inspector Doug Flack is let go following three off-site meetings.
Oct. 12: Fisher’s lawyer sends a letter addressed to Dolan alleging Fisher was terminated for acting against Drinx and the city’s belief he was a “leak.” The letter asks for reinstatement or 1 1/2 times his salary or face a lawsuit.
Nov. 8: City Attorney Deborah Robberson writes back, saying the Oct. 12 letter is not an accurate statement of the reasons for Fisher’s firing.