Minneapolis fire chief accused of civil rights violation

Bonnie Bleskachek
A civil rights investigator finds that Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek retaliated against a male firefighter and denied him advancement opportunities. She is also the subject of sexual harassment lawsuits.
Photo courtesy of KARE-TV

(AP) - A civil rights investigation found probable cause that Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek retaliated against a male firefighter and denied him advancement opportunities. It also found evidence the department gave preferential treatment to women, especially lesbians.

The 23-page ruling, signed by interim civil rights director Michael Browne, stems from a 2003 complaint filed by Elondo Wright, who claimed he was retaliated against after he displaced a female firefighter who was friendly with Bleskachek's lesbian partner.

The finding is the latest trouble for Bleskachek, who went on leave in March while the city investigates allegations that she unfairly influenced the careers of others. The city recently doubled the amount it was spending on that investigation, from $50,000 to $100,000.

Separate lawsuits are also pending against Bleskachek, alleging she mixed romantic relations with her professional life. Bleskachek is the first lesbian in the nation to lead a big-city fire department.

The ruling said "females, and especially women who are either lesbians or socialize with lesbians, are likely to receive preferential treatment in the Minneapolis Fire Department."

Wright's complaint centered on the personal and professional relationship between Capt. Mary Maresca and Bleskachek.

"Armed with the additional latitude her personal and intimate relationship with then-Battalion Chief Bleskachek provided, the investigation shows that Captain Maresca was able to behave in ways that complainant believed were demeaning and humiliating without apparent consequence and accountability," the ruling said.

In 2002, Wright was reassigned to Maresca's crew at his request. In doing so, he displaced a female firefighter who knew Maresca socially. After hearing of the change, Maresca called Wright a "home wrecker," a remark she characterized as "humorous," the ruling said.

The ruling found probable cause that Wright was retaliated against in a job review and denied promotional opportunities. It found no probable cause to support his claims of a hostile work environment and retaliation based on his participation in a lawsuit.

But, the ruling said "females, and especially women who are either lesbians or socialize with lesbians, are likely to receive preferential treatment in the Minneapolis Fire Department."

"I'm sure that the Fire Department and I will be able to work this out," Wright said Monday. "And if we're not, we will pursue litigation."

Assistant City Attorney Joel Fussy said the matter remains an open charge of discrimination. If a resolution isn't reached, a public hearing will be held before a three-member panel of the city's Commission on Civil Rights.

Maresca and Bleskachek have been friends since 1996. They began dating in 2004, according to the ruling.

The ruling faults Bleskachek, then a battalion chief, for the handling of Wright's job evaluation in December 2003.

Capt. Mark Olson said he was told by Bleskachek to give Wright non-passing grades for his work on jobs above his grade, called "riding out of grade." Such opportunities allow firefighters to receive training in a higher position and receive higher pay.

Olson told Bleskachek he was uncomfortable with giving Wright the marks because he had not seen him perform the work.

By the time of his job review, Wright complained that he had seen Bleskachek and Maresca engage in "inappropriate and intimate conduct ... at the firehouse."

Bleskachek's "interference" with Olson's evaluation of Wright is a departure from the department's norms, the ruling said.

In addition, the ruling said Maresca subjected Wright to late-evening training sessions and other activities that are considered humiliating.

The investigation found that Wright not only performed his duties satisfactorily, but received the highest score on the spring 2004 promotional exams. Despite that, he wasn't promoted until January 2006.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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