The fall guy 

There are mysteries that may never be resolved in the firefighters' lawsuit against Orlando city government - -- arguably the ugliest public-relations crisis ever to hit the city. One of them is why a city employee named Mark Munsey was running around last summer telling firefighters and city commissioners that he expected to be "the fall guy" for the allegations.

Munsey wasn't named in the lawsuit. He is neither a doctor nor a medical administrator. Since 1996, the 36-year-old Maryland native has been in charge of the city's risk-management department, which acts as the city's insurance agency. Risk management handles liability claims against the city, and it works to improve safety conditions to prevent injuries, thus saving the city money.

So what did Munsey have to do with a lawsuit alleging that - -- for 25 years - -- a city-run health clinic and a handful of city administrators withheld the results of medical tests, supposedly to cut worker-compensation costs? Twenty-seven firefighters and two police officers claimed that, because the results weren't disclosed, they developed preventable heart, lung and hearing ailments.

The case against the city wasn't particularly compelling. Firefighters' attorneys never provided evidence of a conspiracy. The city, meanwhile, produced affidavits from a dozen past and present employees, some of whom worked for the city as far back as 1975, who said there was no secret policy to withhold test results.

In addition, attorneys for the firefighters chose not to sue the city for medical malpractice, the most obvious basis for a lawsuit. Instead, they sued on grounds that city administrators had intentionally tried to harm firefighters by withholding test results. They also claimed intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium. Three months after it was filed, an Orange County district judge threw the case out of court. A state appeals court twice declined to review it.

Munsey found himself in the middle of the suit last summer through what now appears to be a series of misunderstandings. Because of those misunderstandings - -- which included allegations of missing computer files and other evidence that would substantiate firefighter claims - -- Munsey and his office became the focus of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation in January. As part of that investigation, FDLE agents interviewed 17 people, mostly past and present city employees, including Mayor Glenda Hood, two commissioners, administrators, firefighters and a firefighters' attorney.

Investigators concluded that there was no evidence that public documents had been destroyed or hidden. Investigators also pointed out that, while some testimony conflicted, discrepancies didn't affect their conclusion that documents hadn't been destroyed. "It should be noted that any inconsistencies regarding the City of Orlando commissioners, employees or other persons interviewed are neither substantial nor intentional," the report reads.

But that doesn't clear Munsey in the eyes of city administrators. They have launched their own investigation into whether Munsey and at least one other risk-management employee violated the city's ethical standards. Results of the investigation are due in about a month.

By speaking to firefighters and their attorney, Munsey might have broken any of four broad ethical policies. Administrators could find he had made decisions outside of official channels. He might have lost the independence and impartiality his job entails. He might have negatively affected the public's confidence in the city's integrity. Or he could be accused of bartering information to save his job.

What's most damaging to Munsey is that seven people interviewed in the FDLE report contradict key points of his testimony. Munsey also told investigators that, at a meeting with Chief Admin-istrative Officer Richard Levey and two other top-ranking city officials on Jan. 17, he was told he had 30 days to look for another job. Munsey's concern about being the fall guy was about to become true.

But city spokeswoman Susan Blexrud says Munsey is mistaken. "Maybe he felt that was the tone of his meeting - -- giving him 30 days notice, even though no one I talked to will corroborate that."

Munsey declined to speak at length about the FDLE report or why he thought he would be the scapegoat for the firefighter suit. The FDLE interviews, he said, "speak for themselves." He referred all other questions to Blexrud.

Mark Wesley Munsey was an unlikely candidate to become the city's fall guy. He appeared to enjoy a solid working relationship with his supervisors. He received glowing reviews, a $1,000 signing bonus and 10 percent raise in 1999, and two raises in 2000. Munsey also appeared to be a vital member of what Mayor Glenda Hood often refers to as "the city family." In November he married Assistant City Attorney Mary Pappas.

It is difficult to piece together a coherent time line of events that led to Munsey's involvement in the firefighter controversy. On August 1, 2001, allegations surfaced that he ordered a former city employee to destroy records. That city employee was Joseph Pyzik. Pyzik contacted firefighters' attorneys days after they filed suit against the city, claiming that Munsey had directed him to destroy a blood-borne pathogen plan. The plan set guidelines limiting employee exposure to clothes and equipment splattered with blood.

Pyzik was not the ideal whistle-blower. His job at the city as a safety specialist was his third in two years, and he only worked for the city for six months. In court, city attorneys would likely draw on those facts to paint Pyzik as a flaky Rip van Winkle. Pyzik also told Munsey in his May 2000 resignation letter that he "enjoyed knowing and working" with him. But in an affidavit filed in support of the firefighter suit, Pyzik said he resigned because he had become frustrated with the city's "blatant disregard" for federal safety regulations.

After Pyzik alleged that the pathogen plan had been destroyed, Munsey went to Pyzik's computer to try to save the document. (It was eventually located and produced.) Munsey was unable to access Pyzik's computer because it was password protected. He notified the city's information-technology department, which took away Pyzik's computer. But while Munsey was working at Pyzik's computer, a staff assistant named Jacquelyn Nalbone mistakenly thought Munsey was trying to delete files and notified Mark Oakes, a fire lieutenant and treasurer of the union. Last week the city reassigned Nalbone to the Fleet Management Department.

From there, conjecture spread among fire union officials (who were not part of the lawsuit) about missing computer files and how much Munsey knew. Munsey fueled that speculation by contacting fire officials, though why isn't clear. According to the testimony of Steve Clelland, the fire union's president, Munsey called him in late July to say that Munsey was glad he wasn't named in the lawsuit. Clelland added that Munsey believed he was somehow going to become a scapegoat. "I got the feeling he was trying to win my trust," Clelland told FDLE investigators. "He went on to tell me that if [Steve Valis, Munsey's boss] were to lose his job or something, would we support him?"

On the same day that Pyzik signed an affidavit alleging that the pathogen plan had been destroyed, Munsey met with firefighter attorney Geoffrey Bichler. According to Bichler, Munsey seemed nervous about the affidavit. He thanked Bichler for not being named in the lawsuit and "expressed a concern that he was going to be scapegoated or made the fall guy for the operation of the clinic. He felt that Steve Valis [Munsey's boss] was going to throw him under the bus. I think his job was at risk because of this lawsuit and the potential revelations."

Bichler told FDLE investigators that the firefighter union made a $1,100 public -- information request based on information Munsey leaked. According to fire officials, the document request produced circumstantial evidence but no "smoking gun." In his testimony, Bichler also said that Munsey asked to remain out of the lawsuit. "He asked me to basically spin, if I could, to protect him so that his job wouldn't be placed at risk."

About the time Pyzik's allegations surfaced, Munsey had what he describes as a chance encounter in a hallway with Commissioner Betty Wyman when Munsey was in the commissioners' offices handling a $300 claim.

Munsey says Wyman put her arms around him, hugged him and told him that, "when they try to fire [him], she'll be there to help [him]." In the FDLE report, Munsey says former Fire Chief Robert Bowman was walking out of Wyman's office when the incident occurred.

Bowman, however, says he "does not recall being present" for a meeting between Munsey and Wyman. And Wyman, whose son is an accountant for the Orlando Fire Department, tells an entirely different story. She says Munsey came to her office upset, saying he wasn't "going to be the fall guy in this." Wyman recalls that Munsey mentioned that City Hall kept two sets of records and that some had been lost or misplaced. Wyman denies saying she'd help Munsey if administrators tried to fire him.

"Why would I as a commissioner go in the hall and tell somebody that I was [going to] make sure he wasn't going to be fired?" Wyman testified. "Why would he be fired anyway? I can't imagine anybody going and telling somebody that. I didn't do that."

Munsey next met with Commissioner Don Ammerman several days after meeting with Wyman. (Robert Bowman set up the meeting over the phone.) Previous media accounts focused on the number of contradictions between Ammerman's version of the meeting and Munsey's. [See "Playing with Fire," Feb. 14.] Those contradictions include that Munsey said a computer had been taken from his office and that there was information to validate firefighter claims.

What's strange is that Munsey claims he told his supervisors, Steve Valis and Rebecca Ares, about the Ammerman meeting before and after it occurred. Indeed, before the meeting, Munsey says he asked to receive instructions from Valis and Ares.

But Ares, the head of the city's administrative services, doesn't recall meeting with Munsey about Ammerman. And Valis, the head of labor relations, says he didn't provide instructions and never followed up after the meeting. "I basically said go ahead," Valis told FDLE investigators. "I never heard any more about it."

The contradictions with Ares and Valis will be the most difficult for Munsey to explain away. In his testimony, Munsey defended himself by pointing out that there was a five-month lapse between the time he spoke with commissioners and firefighters, and the time commissioners Ammerman and Wyman told Mayor Hood about Munsey's involvement, prompting the FDLE investigation.

Munsey pointed out that Ammerman was up for reelection and likely wanted to look good in the media. "We got commissioners up for election and all of a sudden, after months of silence, everybody can suddenly remember that I supposedly know where the sins occurred," Munsey said. "And I would turn the tables on each and every one of those people and say, if Mark really told you that on August 3, then weren't you duty-bound as a commissioner to do something about it on the morning of August 4?"

Munsey defended himself against the firefighters and their attorney by saying that they were trying to intimidate him into talking. "Why would this be happening? That's probably the most important question of all. And to that, I couldn't tell you. My best guess is that a handful of people would like to believe that criminal things did occur and that I know the answers. And so if I get squeezed enough, I'll say what they want me to say."

Assuming those two things are true - -- that Ammerman was using information to be reelected, and that firefighters were toying with Munsey - -- what motive do Ares and Valis have for not verifying Munsey's version of events? And why was Munsey so concerned about being named in the lawsuit? The city attorney's office handled the case for city employees. The cost to employees was nothing financially. They had only to pay through the anxiety of uncertainty.

It doesn't make sense except that Munsey may have panicked and behaved irrationally. And such behavior ultimately could be his undoing. The man who didn't want to be the fall guy might, ironically, take a fall for his own imprudence.


More by William Dean Hinton


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