The Village of Oak Lawn’s Village Manager Larry Deetjen is being charged with sending a politically charged press release to news outlets announcing the termination of Robert Lanz, a longtime firefighter/paramedic while simultaneously smearing the fire department with allegations of “animal house behavior” and a previously unreported “child porn” allegation.
Lanz was accused by the village’s administration of calling “phone sex lines” possibly while on duty and was served with a notice to appear for an “interrogation”. The press release said that Lanz violated departmental rules by allegedly making those phone calls on his cell phone while at the firehouse. The press release quotes Fire Chief George Sheets referring to the calls as “reckless animal house behavior”.
While the press release claims the decision to fire Lanz was made by Sheets, it also quotes Mayor Sandra Bury, who seemed to contradict the statement that the decision was made by Sheets saying “consideration for public safety made this difficult decision a simple one”. While the Village has not alleged that Lanz made any phone calls while on paramedic or fire calls serving the citizens of Oak Lawn, the public safety issue has been previously raised by the administration to the chagrin of firefighters.
In court documents filed by the Village of Oak Lawn, the village claimed that Lanz, as a firefighter-paramedic, sees and treats the citizens of Oak Lawn when they are at their most vulnerable. While employees and officials we spoke to did not disagree with that statement, it was the following statement that raised the ire of everyone who read it:
Firefighter-paramedics such as the Plaintiff (Lanz) see patients when they are not fully clothed, and the paramedics must have physical contact with patients, often of the opposite sex. Because of this, the village must have supreme confidence that the firefighter will not abuse the patient relationship for his own personal gratification
The allegation was called “ridiculous” by two employees and officials that we spoke to on the condition of anonymity in our previous story. “To connect an unproven allegation of phone sex to the possibility of a sex crime shows how far this administration will go to attack its firefighters”, said one employee who feared retaliation and asked for confidentiality.
However, that connection has now become even more pronounced in a press release and has been used to smear the entire fire department in what appears to be unsubstantiated allegations that were never acted upon over five years ago despite the Village Manager’s push to have the matter investigated by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. Those allegations, according to a press release from Deetjen, involve “child porn” on computers. It is illegal to possess child porn on your computer or to receive pornographic images of children. It is an allegation that was first made by village officials, in 2010, to the Cook County State’s Attorney, who investigated and found no evidence of any criminal activity. Nonetheless, Deetjen included the allegation in the press release that referred to “animal house behavior” despite the fact that neither phone sex or child porn were part of the iconic Animal House movie starring John Belushi.
Trustee Robert Streit confirmed that he had seen the press release but did not have any input into the decision to fire Lanz or to send out a press release. “It is highly unusual to send out a press release to announce that you are terminating an employee and it strikes me as a morale killer within our employee ranks,” said Streit. He called the unrelated charges cited in the press release “a smear” against the whole department.
The investigation of Lanz began when Deetjen said he had heard “unofficial rumors” that a union audit revealed that union funds were misappropriated. Under Deetjen’s direction, the village had asked the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the matter. After an investigation, no charges were filed by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office against any firefighter, current or past union officials for any misuse of union funds and the case was closed.
One former village official, who asked not to be identified, said that the old child porn revelation raised by contractors hired by Deetjen and referenced in the press release were ruled as “unfounded” charges. The official said that the “leaking of information regarding child porn” seems to be Deetjen’s “modus operandi”. He said, “Deetjen seems to take ridiculous allegations and run to law enforcement agencies in order to scream that there is an investigation but nobody is ever prosecuted leading you to believe it is all a smear”. He added that firefighters will not be the last victims of such smear campaigns and noted that they aren’t the only individuals to suffer from unsubstantiated innuendo.
In the Lanz investigation, Deetjen admitted that he personally investigated the names of some of the companies on the internet and determined that two of the companies provide phone sex services. He then reviewed Lanz’s records and determined some of the charges may have occurred when he was at the firehouse. Firefighters in Oak Lawn work 24 hour shifts and remain at the firehouse during that time period. During the time when firefighters and paramedics are not responding to emergencies, they eat, sleep, watch television, make and accept phone calls, exercise and complete other duties.
Streit said that Deetjen is “an expert at the political smear” noting that he too has been on the receiving end of Deetjen’s unfounded attacks.
The termination was not a complete surprise. Sheets had told Lanz twelve days ago that he intended to seek termination and provided Lanz an opportunity to appear before the Mayor’s appointees at the Police and Fire Commission to fight the charges. Lanz is represented by the firefighters’ union and has decided to file a grievance instead contesting the termination. The grievance will be decided by an arbitrator.
The press release makes it clear that the administration will continue to fight with the firefighter employees. One former firefighter, on the condition of anonymity noted that the village has spent millions fighting with the firemen said, “here we go again”.