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Former Baltimore County fire captain loses pension benefits following sexual harassment investigation

A former Baltimore County fire captain who was terminated after an investigation found he sexually harassed subordinates and created a hostile work environment won't be able to collect his pension.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Thursday against Theodore C. Priester Jr., who was appealing the county's denial of his pension benefits.

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Priester had worked in the department since 1982 and was in charge of Station 18 in Randallstown when he was terminated in 2013 after an investigation found he violated department policies, including the county's sexual harassment policy, the opinion said

Priester's application for pension benefits was later denied by the Board of Trustees of the county's Employees' Retirement System because he had not offered "honorable and faithful service as an employee," which is required by the county code. He appealed the ruling up to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed the board's decision.

"Simply put, a reasoning mind could conclude that a fire officer's service was not honorable or faithful if he was found, over the course of several years, to have abused his authority by violating the rules that he was obligated to enforce and sexually harassing subordinates, who were unable to complain precisely because of his position of authority," the Court of Special Appeals opinion said.

Priester's attorney, John M. Singleton, said he is unaware of any other cases in Maryland or across the country where a worker lost their pension without being convicted on criminal charges or held responsible in a civil case.

Employees of private companies are protected under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. But those protections do not apply to government employees, including public safety employees.

"Now you can take it away because you have an ongoing feud with the captain," Singleton said. "It's a sad day for firefighters and people in public safety who can have their pensions taken away."

The investigation began after an emergency medical technician who worked for Priester complained about his use of the women's bathroom at the fire station. She also said he would "periodically approach her from behind while she was washing dishes or working at a computer, and would 'nibble' on her neck and ear, use crude language to tell her that he thought that she was sexually aroused, and make other lewd and sexually suggestive comments," according to her testimony given during an appeal to the trustees' decision before the Baltimore County Office of Administrative Hearings in 2015.

Several other women also complained about the captain's actions, saying he touched them inappropriately and made suggestive comments. Several said they delayed coming forward because they did not want to be "singled out," the opinion said. One lieutenant testified that "it was difficult for women to report harassment in the Baltimore County Fire Department," and she did not "want to be labeled," according to the opinion.

According to testimony included in the appeals court's opinion, then-Fire Chief John J. Hohman, who retired in June, said Priester "had a long-standing tendency to abuse power and authority and to curry favor with the people that worked with him by not enforcing the rules."

Priester expressed regret at a hearing before the department's Administrative Hearing Board in April 2013.

"Obviously, had any person advised me that they took offense to personal actions, comments or gestures I would have immediately ceased and desisted," according to court opinion.

In the same letter, the court opinion noted that he referred to the "horseplay, hazing, practical jokes, and basic clowning around of the 'old fire department.'"

Priester did not respond to a message left at a phone number listed for his home. Singleton said Priester has a second case pending before the Court of Appeals over his termination.

Fire Department and county spokeswoman Stacie B. Burgess declined to comment on the opinion.

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"We do not comment on litigation matters," Burgess said in an email.

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