LOCKPORT – A 30-year veteran of the Hartland Volunteer Fire Company, expelled for allegedly spreading a false rumor of sexual misconduct by another firefighter, was reinstated last week by court order. But State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. advised Capt. Leigh “Billy” Ames that he might be better off leaving the fire company.
Kloch ruled that the fire company’s executive board and president Bernie Berger violated the department’s bylaws by giving Ames the boot without providing him written notice of the charges seven days in advance of the expulsion vote.
According to his lawsuit, a fellow fireman told Ames in late September that a member of the company had been sexually molesting female junior firefighters.
Ames passed the word to Berger, who said he would investigate the matter.
Berger’s affidavit said the accused firefighter presented a document signed by the girl he was supposed to have abused – and her father – declaring that nothing untoward had happened.
Berger and another Hartland member called a meeting with all the junior firefighters and their advisers, and all said that no sexual activities had occurred.
On Oct. 2, according to Berger’s affidavit, he met with Ames and got him to give up the name of the firefighter whom Ames said was the source of his information about the purported sexual misconduct.
That firefighter, called on the carpet by Berger and the executive board Oct. 4, denied being the source of Ames’ information. Ames’ lawsuit, filed by attorney Steven M. Cohen, said the tipster allegedly warned Ames at the start that, if he was outed as the source, he would “deny, deny, deny.”
According to the Berger affidavit, the board then voted 4-2 to expel Ames, a decision ratified by a 14-5 vote of the full company.
The lack of written notice of the charges was a denial of Ames’ due process rights, Kloch ruled.
But he asked Ames, “What kind of social relationships are you going to have in this fire company?” “I’m unsure right now,” Ames answered.
“You might want to move on,” Kloch suggested. “This is personal advice, not legal advice.”
Anna C. O’Neil, attorney for the fire company, argued that another reason for expelling Ames was his alleged lack of attendance at bingo games.
The judge questioned that.
“He’s not in good standing because he didn’t work bingo? Really?” the judge said.
“It’s an important part of the bylaws,” O’Neil said.
“I suppose I’m going to see this again, so everybody better work bingo,” the judge warned O’Neil.