D.C. Fire Investigator Greg Bowyer talks like a man whose finest days as a professional are well behind him.
He says he once had the highest closure rate of any investigator in the department. He picked up awards and various honors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for his work tracking down an infamous serial arsonist. In 2007, Fire Chief Dennis Rubin awarded him a bronze bar “for the highest degree of judgment, zeal or ingenuity.”
Bowyer, 38, is proud of the accolades. But after spending several years as a fire investigator, he slowly began turning all that zeal and ingenuity toward his very own employer. In Bowyer’s opinion:
• The department’s brass began filling his investigative unit with uncertified and untrained personnel.
• These investigators started mishandling cases, turning in shoddy work with botched determinations. In some cases, they didn’t know where or how fires were being started.
• Several costly fires that should have been labeled as arsons were instead marked down as accidental.
These were not minor cases. Bowyer contends that the Eastern Market fire was arson (“Was This Really an Accident?” 12/22/2007), a version of events at odds with that of Rubin, who announced at the time that the fire cause was electrical. An ATF report has refuted Rubin’s conclusions and suggests a different chain of events, one closer to that of the fire investigator.
Bowyer did not just sit by and shake his head about the problems at his workplace. He wrote e-mail after e-mail to his superiors, leaving the paper trail of an internal, real-time auditor. “It wasn’t popular,” Bowyer says. “I eventually got labeled for doing that.” He heard people started calling him a one-man internal affairs bureau.
Tensions between Bowyer and management spiked in July 2007. Bowyer and his partner, Gerald Pennington, teamed up on a bust of a fireworks dealer who happened to have a gun stashed in his car. In Bowyer’s retelling of events, the department’s investigators mishandled critical pieces of evidence, including both the gun and the fireworks. What looked like a slam-dunk case was eventually dropped by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Bowyer did not hold his tongue on that case, blasting his superiors for allowing mistakes to happen.
In December 2007, a supervisor took away the office that Bowyer and Pennington had used. They were literally put in the doghouse, ordered to work in a room where the four-legged staffers of the K-9 unit were housed.
Bowyer soon got an allergic reaction to the fleas and had to be taken to Providence Hospital. The department, records show, gave him performance-of-duty pay while he was out over the flea bites.
Bowyer and Pennington fought the unit again after a June 18, 2008, fire in Northeast. It was the same routine: The pair spotlighted all kinds of sloppiness in the investigation and insisted the department’s case be shut down. “We could not legally make the arson case,” Bowyer says. “They didn’t know how or where the fire started as the report clearly showed. They hadn’t even ruled out that the fire was accidental.”
Two months later, both Pennington and Bowyer were transferred out of their detective’s beat. They no longer do the gumshoe work of investigating arsons. They were put in an entity known as the Community Service Unit. Pennington was initially tasked with handing out drinks and snacks to firefighters at fire scenes. Bowyer got placed on hydrant duty. They both had to turn over their guns and badges. In a subsequent WJLA-TV story, an unnamed Fire Department official called them “internal terrorists.”
In late February, Bowyer and Pennington filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court alleging multiple instances of race discrimination and retaliation as well as an attempted coverup of the Eastern Market fire. Their lengthy complaint states that the incidents of abuse began in the spring of 2007.
It’s a funny thing that happens to whistleblowers in the D.C. government. Per tradition, they’re not punished with extra work or an inbox full of tall orders. They’re not asked to do the work of 10 men so that others can take a break.
It’s the other way around. They’re asked to watch the clock day in, day out—using their faculties to devise enough make-work, pointless conversations, and snacks to stretch from one end of the shift to the other. That’s the essence of life in the Community Service Unit: installing smoke detectors, checking hydrants, serving snacks, watching the clock.
Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth Crosswhite, who is in charge of the Community Service Unit, explains that Bowyer and Pennington weren’t demoted. Instead, he says, they were given “a unique opportunity.”
As for the daily grind in the unit, Crosswhite insists: “It’s no different than your day. We can measure their productivity. It’s not like they’re sitting around.”
For three days in early March, we logged Bowyer’s actual minute-by-minute activities in whistleblower Siberia.
Bowyer sits in his 1998 Nissan Altima. He has pulled up along the side of the Fire Department’s training academy, located in Blue Plains. His back is to I-295. He sees a parking lot and the outlines of trees in the dark.
Bowyer flicks the dome light on. Then off. His car is bathed in street lamp. He feels shame, sitting there alone in his black Altima’s worn leather seats.
On the back seat, passenger side, is his book of psalms and scripture (The One Minute Pocket Bible: For The Business Professional). Today it’s pages 62 and 63, “Health” and “Hope.”
“Everything God creates is a solution to a problem.”
In the glove box, he still keeps his last official police notebook, dated Aug. 17, 2008. In it, there are notes from his last time out on the job, a liquor store fire at 900 Kennedy Street NW. The rest of the pages are blank. On Aug. 21, he was transferred to hydrant duty.
Bowyer woke up 4 a.m. and meditated. The unit doesn’t have an office and so each day, it arranges a meeting place. Today it’s the academy. Bowyer is too embarrassed to leave his car. He makes sure to use the bathroom before he comes to work. He chooses to await his orders from the comfort of his Altima.
“You never know what to expect,” Bowyer says. “I know they have spies. There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy. This is the safest place—in this car.…You don’t get as many dirty looks in a car.”
Bowyer opens up his driver’s side door and steps outside. He is dressed in blue work pants, blue uniform shirt, and black steel-toe boots.
The parking lot is busy with cars and recruits getting ready to start their morning routines.
“I’m just going to run in and meet the guy and come out,” Bowyer says. His unit consists of another firefighter and a sergeant. It’s the sergeant’s first day in the unit. He feels he at least has to introduce himself to his new boss and explain that he will be sitting in his car.
The two shake hands at the academy’s entrance. The sergeant turns out to be a straight shooter, even sympathetic toward Bowyer. Other firefighters walk up the entrance steps and shake Bowyer’s hand.
“Stick in there,” one says.
The sergeant lets Bowyer return to his car. He’ll call him on his cell phone and let him know when they’ll be going out to check hydrants.
Bowyer gets his Apple laptop from the passenger seat. He gets WiFi from this spot and logs on to read up on some Fire Department regulations related to his case.
Bowyer’s shift begins at 6 a.m. But that doesn’t mean work starts at 6 a.m. He says he wants to polish his boots.
“Isolation,” Bowyer says. “Everyone else has a real job to do.”
Left, right, left. Recruits, in rows of four, march past Bowyer’s Altima to the flagpole at the academy’s entrance. They look really eager, hungry even, to raise that flag, so they do, stringing up the banners for the United States and the District of Columbia.
Bowyer has taught criminal justice classes at UDC, helped train prosecutors on arson cases, and has a master’s degree.
A few minutes later, the recruits begin jogging laps around the parking lot. They are pale and doughy and dressed in all navy blue. They bark out chants familiar to anyone who has watched a military flick.
“Mama and Papa were laying in bed.…Good for you! Good for me!”
The recruits jog past Bowyer four times.
The sun starts to come up over the tree line.
A man strides out of the academy’s side door and motions for Bowyer to get out of his Altima. The firefighter has a complaint. He is animated and loud.
Bowyer stands and just listens. The firefighter’s main complaint is about simple utilities. The batteries to the generator—which would have illuminated the recruit’s exercise area in the back lot—were stolen so now they have no light.
Since becoming the best-known whistleblower in the department, Bowyer has become a walking suggestion box. Firefighters regularly call on him with their gripes as if he could do something about it.
A truck pulls up and a firefighter gets out and joins Bowyer and the complainer. Bowyer quickly says his goodbyes. He doesn’t know the other firefighter. He gets back to his Altima.
The District government has never been a hospitable place for employees who talk openly about malfeasance. Whistleblowers get all forms of abuse, including bad assignments, cold shoulders, dismissal, and so on.... READ MORE
VIDEO: A chat with Greg Bowyer and Gerald Pennington