Report out on Miami Twp fire chief, his lieutenant wife who remain on paid leave

Miami Township Board addresses fire chief, lieutenant now on leave
Published: May. 31, 2023 at 3:37 PM EDT|Updated: May. 31, 2023 at 4:09 PM EDT

MIAMI TOWNSHIP, Ohio (WXIX) - More than two months ago, Miami Township officials announced Fire Chief Brien Lacey and his wife, Lt. Shelly Lacey, were both put on paid administrative leave amid two third-party independent investigations.

Assistant Chief Robert Street, who handles all scheduling for the department, was named acting chief.

Township leaders hired an outside law firm to conduct one of the investigations.

The attorneys, who are being paid $250 per hour, interviewed 24 total people - mostly fire department employees.

They recently concluded their investigation and turned a written report over with findings and recommendations to the township trustees who now plan to hold a special meeting at 4 p.m. Friday.

The purpose is “To hold an executive session to consider the investigation of charges or complaints against a public employee. Possible action to follow,” states an announcement sent Wednesday to FOX19 NOW.

“Miami Township hired an independent investigator to investigate a complaint from an employee. Following a thorough investigation, the investigator released her report. While we cannot comment on personnel matters, Miami Township is reviewing the findings of the investigator and intends to take all necessary and appropriate action.”

There are legal requirements in Ohio to end the employment of a fire chief. One is having an outside person or fire chief investigate allegations.

Should the chief is placed on unpaid leave, the township must then hold a public hearing on the allegations within 15 days, according to Ohio law.

Meanwhile, FOX19 NOW obtained a copy of the report.

It reveals that Township Administrator Dan Reid suspended both Lt. Lacey and Chief Lacey from their jobs on March 10 after Lt. Lacey submitted “a complaint of sexual discrimination and harassment that has led to a hostile work environment” on Feb. 28.

The township also put the couple on leave for the “investigation of an Ohio ethics violation,” according to the report.

FOX19 NOW reported back in March there were nepotism concerns at the fire department with the chief and his wife being related to five other employees.

Chief Lacey signed off on the promotions of his wife and son-in-law Lt. Travis King shortly after he was appointed chief in late 2020, indicating his alleged involvement in their promotions, township records show.

Chief Lacey and his wife share the same lawyer who declined comment Wednesday beyond saying they categorically deny any allegations of wrongdoing.

Brien Lacey was promoted to fire chief in December 2020 after serving as the acting chief when...
Brien Lacey was promoted to fire chief in December 2020 after serving as the acting chief when the former one retired, according to Miami Township Fire & EMS Facebook page.(Miami Township Fire & EMS Facebook)

Ohio’s nepotism law says no public official shall “authorize, or employ the authority or influence of the public official’s office to secure authorization of any public contract in which the public official, a member of the public official’s family, or any of the public official’s business associates has an interest.”

A “family member” is defined as (1) spouse; (2) children (whether dependent or not); (3) siblings; (4) parents; (5) grandparents; (6) grandchildren; and (7) any other person related by blood or by marriage and living in the same household.

Ohio also prohibits a public official or employee from using their authority or influence to secure a thing of value, including any matter that directly impacts the employment of a family member.

The Ohio Ethics Commission does not confirm or deny investigations according to state law, a spokeswoman said when we contacted them earlier this year.

Lt. Lacey’s complaint alleges “that she feels that she does not have support within the department and that her husband, the Chief, and the Assistant Chief cannot intervene because intervention looks like favoritism. The Chief and Lacey were married on November 9, 2005,” the report states.

Lt. Lacey is currently one of two female firefighters at the fire department, is the only female officer within the department and conducts the training. Her direct supervisor is the assistant chief, township records show.

Outside of the fire department, the report notes without elaboration that Lt. Lacey and the chief own and operate Buckeye Safety Training LLC, a safety training company, and fire department members teach courses for the company. Buckeye Safety Training’s website says little now beyond “Coming soon.”

The investigation into Lt. Lacey’s complaint by the outside attorneys concluded that while there are untruthful and/or older incidents in it, “In short, the chief and assistant chief have failed to act and allowed a situation by which Lt. Lacey may have a viable Title VII charge” (sexual discrimination). This justifies the township’s intercession.

“Lt. Lacey may be able to allege an intimidating environment. This combined with the fact that there is evidence (two firefighters) may have treated her poorly because of her sex means she may make a credible sexual harassment claim for which the township could be liable.”

The report also says:

“The Township has a legal and moral obligation to investigate the issues that were brought forward. Although some of the allegations relate to incidents that occurred a few years ago, the Township cannot ignore allegations of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination in the workplace, regardless of when the misconduct occurred. Workplace misconduct, including but not limited to sexual harassment threatens a public entity’s ability to carry out its mission.”

‘The Family’

The information gathered in the internal probe found, according to a copy of the report:

  • The Miami Township Fire Department has 20 full-time firefighters, four lieutenants, one assistant chief, one chief and 15 part-time paid firefighters.
  • They serve nearly 16,000 township residents with three fire stations, one of which is open 24 hours a day.
  • The fire department operates multiple boats for water rescue and marine fires and staffs a technical rescue trailer for hazmat, confined space rescue and rope rescue responses.
  • The agency also provides fire and EMS services under contract for the villages of North Bend, Cleves, and Addyston.
  • Like many area fire departments, Miami Township is facing a staffing shortage and the department is hiring new firefighters. It’s not uncommon for some units to operate with only two firefighters.
  • Longtime township trustee Jack Rininger has overseen the fire department for more than 20 years. Traditionally, each trustee oversaw specific committees and departments but there was no one employee to whom all departments reported.
  • Last year, the township adopted new policies regarding hiring after Trustee Mike Robison was elected and wanted to professionalize township operations. “He expressed concern at the number of employees throughout the Township who are related to one another and concern that the Township needs to ensure that it is following the law.” He advocated for the hiring of an administrator to oversee daily operations.
  • In May 2022, for the first time, the township hired an administrator, Reid, on a part-time basis. All department heads continue to report to the trustee who ran their department’s committee but they report now to Reid, too. He also now makes hiring recommendations to the trustees, not department heads. Robison and Reid are both former longtime employees of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. Reid also served as police chief of Cleves and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. He recently quit to the township to focus on substitute teaching but was asked back until mid-August to help finish several projects.
  • The chief and his wife, Lt. Lacey, are two of seven members of the same family who work for the Miami Township Fire Department, FOX19 NOW reported earlier this year.
  • The chief was hired by the township in June 2001 and was named assistant fire chief in December 2019. The following year, he was promoted to acting fire chief when the former one retired and then was named fire chief in December 2020.
  • Lt. Lacey is a 22-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the fire department who leads all the training. She was hired in March 2001, has an extensive firefighting resume and was promoted to lieutenant in early 2021. Her pay last year was $72,774.14 and her annual salary is about $53,140, according to the township.
  • “A significant portion of MTFD employees are related by blood or marriage, and, specifically, related to Lt. Lacey. Lt. Lacey is married to Chief Brien Lacey,” the report states. “Her brother, Chris Papner, and her nephew, Austin Papner, are both firefighters within the department. Lt. Travis King is her stepson-in-law (the Chief’s son-in-law). FF Cody Ratliff is the Chief’s nephew. Her son-in-law, Tomas Bilson, is a part-time firefighter within the department.
  • “Members of the MTFD, including the Laceys, during their interviews, collectively call the related employees ‘the Family.’”
Seven employees at Hamilton County's Miami Township Fire Department are related to Fire Chief...
Seven employees at Hamilton County's Miami Township Fire Department are related to Fire Chief Brien Lacey and his wife, Fire Lt. Shelly Lacey, township records released to FOX19 NOW show.(Provided by Miami Township in Hamilton County)

The report also found:

  • “There is a perception (Lt. Lacey) was promoted because she is married to Chief Lacey, the report states. “But Lacey appears to have been promoted fairly in a competitive process; she has exhaustive certifications. I found no indication that Lt. Lacey was promoted because she is married to the chief.”
  • The chief advocated for a third relative, Bilson, to be promoted from part-time to full-time firefighter. He is married to Lt. Lacey’s daughter. At the time of the investigation, Bilson lived with Lt. Lacey and Chief Lacey in their basement. Last week, the township received a notice of a change of Bilson’s address.
  • Lt. Lacey alleged in her complaint Bilson was denied a promotion because of his relationship with the Laceys and because of race (Bilson is Hispanic). However, the report notes, “The facts demonstrate that the Township passed its nepotism policy in November 2022. The firefighter promotion process took place in January 2023. Additionally, the state of Ohio has a nepotism statute that prohibits a public official or employee from hiring a family member or using his or her position in any way to secure the employment of a family member. Pursuant to the state statute, an official or employee cannot hire the following family members if they live in the same household with the official or employee: uncles and aunts; cousins; nieces and nephews; in-laws; and anyone else related to the official or employee by blood or by marriage. As noted above, Bilson has been living in the same household as the Laceys.”
  • “Notably, there is a perception within the department that Firefighter Bilson has received preferential treatment because he is related to Chief Lacey and Lt. Lacey. However, some of this perception is based on statements Firefighter Bilson has made himself. For example, prior to the promotion process, FF Bilson said to other firefighters within the department, ‘I am guaranteed Kaylee’s [former FF Haggard] spot when she leaves.’ FF Bilson did score the highest number of points in the promotions evaluation, but there is no applicable policy, rule, or contract that requires the Township Trustees to hire the applicate with the highest score.”
  • “The Chief recused himself from the promotion/hiring process, but Lacey did not. She prepared the written exam using a test generator. The chief was told Bilson would not be considered for promotion because of the nepotism policy. His response was, “What am I going to tell my wife?” He also reportedly said, “How am I going to get him out of my basement?” The township administrator said there was some question about whether the nepotism policy applied due to the fact that Bilson was already hired, and the transition from part-time to full-time firefighter is generally viewed as a promotion within the fire department.

The report also found, according to a copy of it:

  • The chief sent emails to Rininger and Reid requesting that the decision be reconsidered, writing that the highest-scoring candidate (Bilson) should be hired.
  • Chief Lacey advocated that the second-ranked scorer on the test be passed over.
  • The chief’s wife, the chief’s son-in-law and a firefighter who is the chief’s brother-in-law were all involved in the evaluation process.

‘What am I going to tell my wife?’

The investigation also determined, according to a copy of it:

  • The chief denied to one of the outside attorneys making some statements and then later admitted making them such as saying “What am I going to tell my wife?”
  • The chief also denied knowing that new hiring and equal employment policies were adopted but the outside attorney wrote “I do not find his statement that he was unaware that the policies were approved to be credible” because he was at the meeting where the policies were discussed and approved.
  • The chief failed as the head of the fire department to distribute employee policies, including the nepotism policy and non-discrimination policy
  • Lt. Lacey’s complaint contained multiple allegations of inappropriate conduct by co-workers including ones who called her “Big Red,” “Aunt Shelley” and “Strawberry Shortcake”; disregarded training she conducted and removed or damaged her personal property. When she called off one day, a firefighter approached her son-in-law and said: “‘How are you going to get through the day without Aunt Shelly’s --- in your mouth.’ This report has been verified,” the report states.
  • “The fire chief, assistant chief and even Lt. Lacey herself all say the fire chief and assistant fire chief could not address her issues with fire employees because it would be seen as “favoritism” toward the chief’s wife,” the report states.
  • The report considers the definition of the nickname “Big Red.” Lt. Lacey wrote in her complaint it’s slang for “a sexy hot looking red-haired woman that’s really busty,” the report states.
  • Lacey’s nephew thought it was because of her red hair and only found out ‘recently’ from the Chief that it means ‘red-haired chicks with big -----.’” The assistant fire chief “said he learned about the urban dictionary definition from the time when the Chief ordered (two firefighters) to stop calling Lacey ‘Big Red.’”
  • Multiple fire dept employees “reported the chief has referred to her as the “Red Fox” in the workplace. Lt. Lacey and the chief initially denied this, but later said it was possible when testing out radios. Two firefighters felt that “there were sexual connotations to this moniker.”
  • Lacey’s brother, Firefighter Papner, told the outside attorney that Lt. Lacey is the “hardest working person in the department” and is regularly in her office until 10:30 p.m. while others are watching TV or relaxing between runs. He said “she can be a pain in the (a--,”) but the reason the firefighters don’t like her is because “they don’t want to work, and she makes them.”
  • While the chief did intervene regarding firefighters calling Lt. Lacey “Big Red,” the chief failed to take action to address other issues in the workplace, according to the report.
  • Last year, the chief was aware of a sexual harassment complaint from a female firefighter involving a veteran male lieutenant at the department but did not begin his investigation until the township administrator had received notice from two other sources, one internal and one external, “that the chief was covering up the alleged sexual harassment. By that point, the incident had already occurred and weeks had gone by. The chief alleged he was still investigating it. No disciplinary action was taken against the chief, “but it is undisputed that the chief did not notify the township administrator of the complaint at the time it occurred,”the report states.
  • The township administrator concluded, “that inappropriate and purposeful sexual touching took place in the workplace.” Township records show the lieutenant, Scott Hinson, was put on paid leave in October 2022 and then resigned. The township charged him administratively with “sending inappropriate text messages to another employee - the female firefighter; making inappropriate comments to her and accidental or intentional touching of her that could be construed as inappropriate and/or sexual in nature.” Hinson admitted to sending the text message “that could be viewed as inappropriate from an officer. Lt. Hinson did say that at some point he did go to his room and pray and he felt it was wrong,” township records show. The female firefighter, Jada Murphy, quit and told the township administrator she felt her issues weren’t properly addressed including “In the kitchen, Scott Hinson grabbed her butt with a pair of oven mitts” while another firefighter laughed uncomfortably and another was “speechless.” She also said fire leadership made her feel “uncomfortable because it was a married couple.” She “expressed an issue with Chief Brien Lacey and Shelly Lacey owning their own company called Buckeye Safety LLC. They have used Miami Township equipment for this business including supplies from our house as well as the hazmat trailer. In addition, members of the township fire department also work for the company and have called off to work for Buckeye. Chief Brien Lacey and Shelly Lacey knew.”
  • Lt. Lacey alleged sex-based discrimination and family relationship discrimination because township trustees questioned the chief about who was attending a conference when he appeared before them on Feb. 1 to seek approval for two related budget items, according to the report.
  • Rininger was absent. Trustees Dan Blanton and Robison “asked a few mild, conversational questions about the spending requests. The chief told them the department would send two people. When Blanton asked who, the chief responded he was one of them but he wasn’t sure who would be the other. He added that it’s usually him and “Shelly.” The trustees “immediately approved both items.”
  • The entire exchange lasted just a few minutes, and there did not appear to be any animosity between the parties during the exchange, according to the attorney’s report. “After watching the exchange (the meeting was video recorded) I find that the questions were entirely appropriate and consistent with their roles as trustees, and even more so given the fact that Trustees Blanton and Robison are less familiar with the fire department and its operations than Trustee Rininger. I find, as a matter of fact, any allegation that the Trustees were unjustifiably “scrutinizing” the fire department operations at the public meeting to be meritless.”
  • The chief and Lt. Lacey told the attorney who interviewed them as part of the investigation that “they do use the trip as an opportunity for the two of them to stay in a nice hotel in downtown Indianapolis and eat at nice restaurants, albeit using their own money and not the taxpayers’ money. The Lacey complaint notes that they spend approximately $3,000 of their own money on the trip a year.”
  • The chief and Lt. Lacey didn’t attend the conference and no one went from the fire department.
  • Lt. Lacey alleges in her complaint the trustees refused to meet with the Laceys to “discuss the discrimination, harassment we receive and the false allegations against us.” In the original request, the Chief initially requested, in writing, an “executive session” with the Trustees, according to the report. The township administrator emailed back explaining that executive sessions need to be for a specific statutory reason.
  • Later, the chief emailed to say that he hadn’t asked for an “executive session” (even though the emails demonstrate he did), but rather wanted a meeting/exit interview with the trustees like retired firefighter Kaylee Haggard, the report states.
  • The township administrator offered to meet with them in lieu of the entire board in order to avoid possible Sunshine Law violations.
  • Rininger appeared willing to have a similar meeting, but the remaining trustees were concerned about violating the Sunshine Law.
  • The email exchanges with the township administrator “do not support Lacey’s allegation that there was a refusal to hear the claim of discrimination,” according to the report.
  • Lt. Lacey also alleges that the township does not have “a policy or employee directions as to how or who to make a claim of this nature.” The investigation determined “The township does have a nondiscrimination policy, and the MTFD has a Professional Conduct Rule against harassment and workplace violence. Neither the policy nor the rule specifies to whom employees should make complaints. However, as a paramilitary organization, firefighters are expected to follow the chain of command. Here, when Lacey did follow the chain of command by filing her complaint with Assistant Chief Street, it was ‘sent up the chain’ to the township administrator, who reported it to the trustees, who took action to investigate her claims.”
The leaders of Hamilton County's Miami Township are (left to right): Trustee Jack Rininger,...
The leaders of Hamilton County's Miami Township are (left to right): Trustee Jack Rininger, Trustee Dan Blanton, Township Administrator Dan Reid, Trustee Mike Robison and Fiscal Officer Cindy Oser.(Miami Township Facebook page)

The report recommends:

  • Transfer Lt. Lacey to another station “but make it clear this is not a retaliatory action for her participation in the investigation and/or reporting her concerns, but in response to her request,” the report states.
  • “Family members involved in corrective actions of other family members should excuse themselves and transfer the situation to a less-biased officer. People charged with a disciplinary issue should generally not be subjected to decision-making by relatives.”
  • “Conduct non-discriminatory and non-harassment training for all MTFD employees, and send the chief and assistant chief to supervisory training. Some sort of discipline should be noted in their files.”
  • “Reissue the township harassment policy such that it includes clear guidance on how to report sexual harassment concerns and includes anti-retaliatory language.”
  • Establish a clear chain of command through the Township Administrator, and upon hiring a new Township Administrator, have the new Administrator serve as Lt. Lacey’s supervisor for administrative and disciplinary issues. “This will mitigate against claims within the fire department that there is ‘favoritism’ and provide additional oversight of the fire department to ensure that sexual harassment claims are investigated and addressed, the report states.

Lt. Lacey filed a grievance over being placed on paid leave, noting that she was not informed why as the union contract stipulates.

The status of her grievance is not clear.

In her complaint to the township, she named a long list of former and current Miami Township employees who worked with relatives and says hers have all earned their positions.

“Miami Township has a long history of related people working together, only we (my family) are being harassed and penalized for it though,” her complaint states.

She also wrote that relatives working for the same fire department “is a tradition in the fire service. Most cities, including the city of Cincinnati, give “legacy points” to family members to bump them higher in their process.

“We do nothing like that. Each of my family members have earned their position free and clear of any relation, favoritism, nepotism, or partiality. This is fact and easily proven by written records and documentation of their qualifications. Although some of these other relationships noted above and employment opportunities given do violate nepotism laws with the Ohio Ethics Commission.”

Lt. Lacey’s complaint says she planned to make an inquiry with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) “and am waiting the time for my scheduled appointment to file the claim through this entity.”

As of Wednesday, a formal federal workplace complaint has not been filed.

See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Please click here to report it and include the headline of the story in your email.

Do you have a photo or video of a breaking news story? Send it to us here with a brief description.