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Richard Corenthal Quoted in Lohud Journal News, “Port Chester Volunteers Claim Harassment After Paid Staff Laid Off”

An attorney for the Port Chester Fire Department threatened legal action against the village if it released the names of its volunteers to the press and public.

After all of Port Chester’s paid firefighters were laid off in May 2016, the volunteers left to pick up the slack faced intimidation tactics, according to a March 9 letter from Anthony Tirone, an attorney for the department.

“The ability of the members to perform their duties will be severely impaired, as they will be in fear of being threatened, harassed, and/or harmed,” the letter stated.

The letter, obtained as part of an information request with the village, also said “a clear and established pattern of coercion, physical and verbal intimidation, including physical assaults of fire chiefs and members” had existed since the layoffs.

The request came after village officials and fire department leadership said in recent interviews that volunteers had been spit at and faced intimidation that included an incident described as nearly being run off the road by another driver.

However, the documents received don’t outline behavior that is violent but mostly nuisances and pranks.

The documents showed a total of five complaints received by the Port Chester and Rye Brook police departments in the month after the decision to eliminate the paid firefighters, while rowdy protests and pickets took place in and around the village.

  • A May 11, 2016 complaint by former Chief Edward Quinn said someone put a fraudulent hold mail request with the post office. He said in the complaint several other volunteers also experienced the same.
  • A fake fire was called in on May 4, 2016 according to a complaint from Quinn. The call was made for a house across the street from former Mayor Dennis Pilla’s home, where a pro-union protest was taking place.
  • Assistant Fire Chief Enrico Castarella said on May 4, 2016 that one of the ousted paid firefighters showed up at his home and discussed the situation, ending with him yelling obscenities at Castarella. No charges were filed.
  • A fire department log book went missing. In a complaint from Quinn on May 18, 2016, the chief said at the time the book was taken only three former paid firefighters who had come in two days earlier to collect some belongings had access to area at the time.
  • A possible criminal mischief complaint was filed at the fire station May 24. Quinn told an officer that a computer modem was broken, but a call received while the complaint was filed said the modem had been damaged for a while. The recent damage to the unit, about 10 years old, could have been done intentionally, Quinn said.

In an interview in March, prior to the information request, Village Manager Chris Steers said that many of the incidents weren’t documented through complaints or arrests. That includes one where he said he saw a picketer spit at a volunteer during a protest at Village Hall.

“It’s ongoing and pretty significant,” he said.

Other incidents, such as picketing at the assistant fire chief’s place of business in Connecticut, may not have been documented locally.

Tirone, the department’s attorney, said in a followup interview that his use of the word “assault” in his letter could “take on a lot of different terminologies.”

“Giving the base meaning of a physical contact between one and another I’m not aware of, but I know one guy was spit at, I know they threw things at somebody else,” he said. “That’s basically the sum and substance of it.”

According to New York law, an assault conviction would require injury to someone.

Richard Corenthal, an attorney for the paid firefighters, called the accusations “defamatory” and said there was no basis for them. He said there were no arrests in the “boisterous but peaceful” protests.

“I am not aware of any physical threats by professional firefighters against volunteers,” he said. The protests were aimed at the village’s decision, rather than individuals, he said.

When the village Board of Trustees voted to eliminate its eight paid staff, it said it would save roughly $800,000 in the first year alone. But, the timing of the cuts led to accusations by an attorney for the paid firefighters that it was retaliatory.

A labor complaint filed by the head of the professional firefighters, two months before the layoffs, accused volunteers of mishandling a fire on Cottage Street that led to one firefighter being electrocuted and another being treated for smoke inhalation. Then-Chief Quinn later asked the paid firefighter who wrote the report to change it to remove references to specific responders and to not distinguish unpaid firefighters by calling them “volunteers.”

Questions have continued over the training level and number of employees in the department, after village officials cited 300 volunteers as justification that the village was safe despite the loss of its paid firefighters. The village refused to release names of the volunteers and has only limited local training records available because a hard drive was wiped by a former officer well before the layoffs, officials said.