A former fire investigator who worked for the Fairfax County Fire Department for 20 years has filed a lawsuit against 17 of her ex-colleagues, accusing them of bullying, sexual harassment and conspiring to get her to quit.
Patricia Tomasello said the harassment and discrimination started when she joined the department in 1996.
"Their goal was to continue a twenty-year-long vendetta instigated by Chief [Michael] Reilly and directed at her by senior officials and line-duty firefighters. This vendetta was encouraged by a number of fire chiefs and other subordinates located in the Fairfax County Fire Department," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit said employees and fire chiefs, including current fire chief Richard Bowers, went to great lengths to have Tomasello removed from the department, including planting marijuana in her vehicle and accusing her of unprofessional conduct.
In 2006, Tomasello was the first African-American woman to be promoted to fire investigator in the department.
Two of the employees named in the lawsuit resented her because she repeatedly denied their requests for "sexual favors," the lawsuit said.
She said the sexual harassment continued at a conference.
"On a number of occasions, I had a couple of firefighters come to my room at 3 o'clock in the morning, just constantly harassing me about sex," Tomasello said.
When Tomasello was diagnosed with cancer, the department granted her request for light duty, but she said her colleagues continued to make her life miserable.
"I was made to go run a call in the hot scalding sun and anybody knows when you're dealing with chemotherapy, sun burns your skin," Tomasello said.
The alleged "conspiracy" to get her out of the department was successful, the lawsuit said, because Tomasello was transferred out of the fire investigations unit, stripped of her position and forced into another job that pays significantly less.
Tomasello filed a discrimination lawsuit against the department two years ago. A judge dismissed that case.
A spokesperson for the department gave the following statement to News4:
"We cannot comment on a pending lawsuit. However, we want to assure our community that harassment of any kind is not tolerated by Fairfax County. Fairfax County has written policies that prohibit harassment, and all county employees are required to participate in training regarding sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Allegations of harassment are taken seriously and fully investigated. Anyone who is proven to have participated in this type of unacceptable behavior is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination."
The lawsuit is the latest accusation against the department, which has been accused of having a hostile work environment for female firefighters.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors said it is employing a third-party consultant to investigate the professional environment of the fire department.