On October 14th, 2017 the Palominas Fire District (PFD) Board of Directors placed then-Chief Mark Matthews on a 30-day disciplinary suspension, according to internal Palominas documents. The suspension followed weeks of investigations into claims that Matthews harassed and threatened district staff. Just days after his suspension, Matthews’ retirement due to cancer was publicly announced.
Mathews, the current chief of the Pioneer Fire Protection District, was the first firefighter on scene to the Caldor Fire and was the first incident commander on August 14, 2021. He is currently on medical leave and is reported to be now living in Oregon. His contract at Pioneer is due to expire at the end of March if it is not renewed.
As we previously reported, Matthews has spoken publicly about his 2017 forced departure from Palominas due to cancer. Less than three months later he applied for the position of fire chief at the Pioneer Fire Protection District. That year he told the Mt. Democrat that, while cancer forced him out of his job in Palominas, he has since received a “clean bill of health.” When The Jericho Report interviewed Matthews this past year he spoke about leaving Palominas due to a cancer that “prevented” him from performing his duties as chief.
Until now, it doesn’t appear the public has been aware that Matthews was the subject of these internal investigations at the time of his retirement from Palominas. The Jericho Report has obtained a 21-page report which appears to conclude that Matthews was in violation of nearly a dozen district policies and guidelines including harassment, insubordination, workplace threats, and altering or falsifying district records.
On August 10, 2017 the PFD board received a complaint accusing Chief Matthews of harassment. The board requested that the district’s human resources consultant, Brenda Tranchina, begin an investigation into the accusations.
The Jericho Report will not be reporting on the nature of the harassment allegations, nor certain related details, in order to protect the identity of the alleged victim.
As Tranchina began her investigation into the alleged harassment she found several employees who claimed that Matthews “threatened” them with dismissal if they talked to board members about what they saw or experienced. The original complainant also spoke of her fear of coming forward with her allegations against Matthews because she believed Matthews would fire her.
Other employees reported being too afraid of Matthews to say anything negative about him. One spoke of receiving a phone call in which Matthews screamed, “Shit, you’re a fucking idiot.” According to the employee this phone call took place after making a mistake on the job. This staff member only spoke of his experience at the hands of Matthews after being questioned by the H.R. consultant, the report notes.
According to the report, these and the other experiences shared by multiple employees were so severe that Matthews was found to be in violation of “Policy 2-004, Workplace Violence,” which states that threats of physical violence, including intimidation, harassment, or coercion is prohibited.
The report also details months of dubious accounting practices which may have cost the PFD thousands of dollars. Tranchina found six former employees that continued receiving insurance benefits from the district despite previously resigning. While Matthews was required to inform the insurance broker to cease benefits, he apparently requested some continue while failing to report others. In total, the report states, Matthews cost the district at least $15,467 for either failing to stop ineligible payouts or actively seeking payouts on behalf of certain staff.
As part of the original investigation into alleged harassment, Tranchina also found that Matthews extended full-time insurance benefits to two part-time employees. According to the report, this was discovered after a female employee, who was also part-time, told Tranchina she was denied the same benefits herself. According to the report, Matthews had indeed granted full-time benefits to part-time male employees while denying the same benefits to at least one part-time female employee.
The report also alleges that Matthews was in violation of several district policies when he wrote contracts for a number of friends without board approval, dismissed an individual without providing a reason, and hired at least one person who was facing criminal charges at the time. The Jericho Report is currently working to verify several aspects of this part of the story and plans to publish soon.
As the investigation went on, Tranchina wrote, Matthews may have attempted to retaliate against the original complainant. Tranchina found a memo Matthews wrote to the entire district. The memo announced revised duties and reduced work schedules for two employees, one of whom was the complainant. Tranchina then advised Matthews that such a memo could appear to be retaliatory. Matthews then sent an additional memo to the district in which he revised part of his orders regarding the two staff while, according to the report, refusing to recall the other orders. This lead to a finding of insubordination against Matthews for “refusal to follow job-related instructions of supervision.”
The report then details another finding of insubordination against Matthews. On October 12, 2017 the PFD board held an executive session to “discuss Matthews’ employment status.” The board then placed Matthews on a 30 day suspension based on findings from the initial investigation into harassment. Matthews was then presented with his suspension in writing, which included several directives.
One of the suspension directives stated, “You shall not conduct any district-related business or engage in any district-related activity.” According to the report, however, Matthews began contacting the district’s insurance broker to see if the district could “add retirees to the health insurance plan.” The broker who took Matthews calls said, “It was clear Matthews was inquiring about this possibility because of his own desire to seek retirement.”
According to Tranchina, repeatedly contacting the insurance broker was in violation of Matthews’ order to not conduct or engage in any district-related matter during his suspension, thus resulting in another finding of insubordination. Furthermore, the report states, Matthews also violated an order to not contact any district employees or board members during his suspension, resulting in yet another count of insubordination.
Soon after the complainant came forward to the board, Matthews produced a list of “violations” against another employee. This employee, according to Matthews, was a “troublemaker” and “encouraged” the original complainant to accuse Matthews of harassment. According to the report, Tranchina found no history of complaints or citations against this employee and no evidence of troublemaking. In fact, Matthews apparently promoted this employee on merit, and the complaints Matthews filed against him only came after the original complainant came forward.
In total, the report found that Matthews violated 11 district policies and guidelines, some of which he violated repeatedly. The report states, “While Matthews went to great lengths to try to point out other employees’ failure to follow policy, there are many more examples of his own failures.” Further, “Throughout the course of this investigation, which came as a result of the initial investigation of harassment, Tranchina found multiple instances of misconduct and performance deficiencies on Matthews’ part.”
While the initial investigation into Matthews began in August of 2017, several more were opened by late September or early October. While Matthews was suspended for the results of the initial investigation, the others were just beginning in the days prior his retirement due to cancer in October. These internal investigations are in addition to the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department investigation into Matthew’s regarding his alleged behavior around suspicious fires, as previously reported by The Jericho Report.
At the time of this writing TJR has been unable to obtain comment from Mark Matthews for the purposes of this article. This story will be updated in further posts as more information comes out regarding this report and these allegations.