Everett firefighter caught in sting had pattern of bad conduct

EVERETT — Looking back, there was a pattern.

Pete Vier’s troubling behaviors were well-documented long before the Everett firefighter was arrested in November in an underage sex sting.

His bosses and colleagues say they were stunned when they heard Vier, 60, allegedly agreed to pay a Seattle father for sex with the man’s 15-year-old daughter. The father turned out to be an undercover detective and the girl was fictional.

Vier is free on bail, facing a July trial in King County on charges of attempted commercial sexual abuse of a minor. A 25-year veteran of the Everett Fire Department, he retired shortly after his arrest.

Until July, Vier had been the department’s division chief of emergency medicine, its third-highest rank. He was demoted after his disturbing conduct toward women got him banned from Providence Regional Medical Center Everett and from the city of Edmonds.

Public records have demonstrated Vier’s series of problems on and off the job. His bosses say they only recently learned about some of his issues. Now they’re left wondering where they went wrong in efforts to keep Vier in line.

The case has shoved the Everett Fire Department into the media spotlight and illustrated the challenges of holding public employees accountable.

Vier’s history includes:

  • Stalking accusations from two women. In 2014, he was asked to stay away from Providence after he made a scene there trying to confront an ex-girlfriend, who was a nurse. In 2012, he used a secret GPS tracker to follow another ex-girlfriend.
  • Poor leadership. He was such a bad boss that the city in 2013 hired him an “executive coach.” The coach, who worked with Vier and another fire department employee, was paid $26,925.
  • Signs of instability. In 2011, he penned a suicide note and sent it using his public fire department email. The note referenced his access to the fire department’s supply of sedatives.
  • Inappropriate billing. Officials say he contributed to the city overbilling for ambulance rides for several years, mostly in 2010.
  • An arrest for assault. Vier was arrested and booked in Island County in 2005 after the assault of his ex-wife. In 2010 and again in 2014, he was suspected of break-ins at her home. No charges were filed.

His bosses say they were unaware of the Island County cases until after news coverage of the November arrest. Leaders at the firefighters union also say they didn’t know the whole story.

Vier’s July demotion from division chief came with a $24,000 pay cut. From then until he retired, he was making $87,000 a year.

***

As a paramedic, Vier went into homes to provide care for the sick, injured and vulnerable.

“It’s easy in hindsight to see how all of these issues over the years” ultimately led to Vier’s departure, Fire Chief Murray Gordon said in a March interview.

Weeks after Vier’s arrest, Gordon announced he wanted to enact stricter rules regarding when firefighters must self-report arrests. He also proposed conducting background checks on firefighters every two years.

The firefighters union, Local 46, supported the background checks. The changes to the policies for self-reporting arrests are pending negotiation.

The union’s contract with the city is headed toward arbitration over staffing levels and health-care coverage.

As a division chief, Vier was a member of the union. Only in the Providence case did Vier invoke his rights for union representation, President Paul Gagnon said. Often, the union is unaware of issues unless an employee invokes those rights, Gagnon said.

“If you don’t ask, we don’t get involved,” he said.

The onus was on the city to investigate the allegations against Vier, union spokeswoman Sue Evans said. It’s the Local’s responsibility to make sure employee rights aren’t violated, not to mete out discipline, she said.

“We protect the process, not the person,” Gagnon said.

***

The chief and others consulted the city human resources department, police and prosecutors in their handling of Vier’s problems. Their legal options to discipline him for off-duty activities were limited, Gordon said.

That includes an Edmonds police investigation that determined Vier installed a secret GPS tracker on an ex-girlfriend’s car. Vier was not charged in that case.

Vier’s bosses told him to stay out of Edmonds, where the woman lived, and to get professional counseling.

“We felt that our response was appropriate. It wasn’t taken lightly or arbitrarily,” Gordon said.

At the time, Vier’s on-the-job problems took precedence, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said. Records show they included complaints about his temper, ability to communicate and management style.

***

In February, a Seattle TV station ran a story suggesting the fire department engaged in fraud at Vier’s direction.

The city then conducted a review of 1,800 ambulance billing records from 2009 through 2012. Vier was the EMS division chief during that time.

They found a total of 12 instances when patients were incorrectly billed, said Tim Key, the division chief of emergency medical services. The errors happened “in good faith” before they were discovered in 2011, Key said.

Key attributed the errors to Vier, who mistakenly thought the city could bill at a higher rate — for advanced medical care — on less-serious calls, provided a paramedic had responded. Paramedics work in close communication with emergency room doctors.

Since questions were raised, city staff now compare every ambulance bill to 911 records. Vier had no way to profit from the errors, Key said.

The department has been making amends for those mistakes, and there was no “intentional up-charging,” Pembroke said last week.

“In most of the cases, the reimbursements would be paid to Medicare, Medicaid or a secondary insurance,” she said. “In just a few cases we would make reimbursements for non-Everett residents who were charged directly for their transport.”

Separately, the city in fall 2012 sought an audit into overall ambulance billing. That audit raised questions about the city issuing bills for medical supplies, such as oxygen, used during hospital transports.

The city has received conflicting advice on how to proceed, Pembroke said. After the overall audit, the city issued two refunds totaling $280 for supplies, and hired lawyers to conduct additional reviews.

“We’ve stopped the (billing) practice until we can get a firm answer,” Pembroke said.

***

Everett firefighters are required to promptly report arrests involving drugs or alcohol. Gordon’s proposal would require reports after all arrests. He learned of Vier’s November arrest in a phone call from Seattle police.

“We acted swiftly and very justly at that time,” Gordon said. Vier was put on leave, and an internal investigation began. Vier retired before it was completed.

The fire department’s administration and the union agree the criminal accusations against Vier in Seattle, and the revelations about his prior history of bad behavior, reflect poorly on the department.

Gordon rejects the suggestion that Vier was protected because of personal friendships or because of a “good old boy” system in the fire service. Everybody in uniform understands that no single employee is more important than the department’s integrity and the public’s trust, the chief said.

Still, Gordon said, he had a duty to provide his employee with resources to succeed. He tried, but it became clear that Vier’s personal life was affecting his work.

“Ultimately we determined that he wasn’t going to be successful,” Gordon said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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