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Orlando police blast WFTV over 'firing' report

By Hal Boedeker

Staff writer

2:44 PM EDT, June 6, 2013

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The Orlando Police Department has given a withering critique to a WFTV-Channel 9 report, but the station is dismissing the criticism.

One point of contention: the meaning of "fired."

WFTV's Kathi Belich on Wednesday reported that a female officer had been fired.

Not so, police say.

Sgt. Rhonda Huckelbery, 48, has "continuous employment with OPD and is assigned to the Airport Division as a supervisor," Sgt. Jim Young wrote in a memo sent to the media.

Huckelbery is suing OPD and claims she was a victim of gender, age and disability discrimination.

Young blasted Belich's reporting on a story that was titled "Breast cancer survivor says she was fired from OPD because she wouldn't wear vest."

Belich "conducted this story as if the allegations themselves were fact," Young said. "Belich went on to state that 'OPD hasn't said why it is now waffling about the vest and her job, because it won't comment on pending litigation.' "

But not commenting on pending litigation is policy, Young said in an interview. 

"To say a woman has been fired over a breast cancer issue is sensitive," Young said. "She has never been fired."

WFTV General Manager Shawn Bartelt said she didn't think there would be a retraction.

"The woman has filed the lawsuit. In the lawsuit, it references being relieved of duty," Bartelt said. "And when she originally contacted Kathi, in her conversation, she felt that she had been fired."

But Page 2 of Huckelbery's lawsuit reads that "she has been continuously employed by OPD since September 18, 1988."

Bartelt added, "I'm sure one can parse fired and relieved of duty, but the implication and Kathi's understanding was that she was initially fired." Bartelt said she considered fired and relieved of duty to be close in meaning.

But there could be a crucial difference: Is someone still being paid?

WFTV would be glad to have a conversation with police about the report, Bartelt said.

Orlando Police Chief Paul Rooney had contacted the station, Young said.

If they talk at length, they may want to discuss how stories are played.

Young was astonished that the Belich report was a "top breaking news story."

"It will draw attention. Even the anchor made a comment about how much attention the story was getting," Young said. "She has not been fired. That's our concern, so we don't create issues with the residents. When a story is repeated, the headline of that story will draw attention. We don't care if attention is brought to OPD, but we want to make sure factual information is put out."

Young was adamant that Belich got a key part of the report wrong and says the reporter should have asked a crucial question.

"If someone is making allegations about being fired, I would call that company or agency," Young said. "My answer to her would have been, 'No, she's a sergeant in current rank.' "