A combat veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — who once praised his fellow St. Paul firefighters for helping him to pull through dark days — has been fired from the department.
Billeigh Riser Jr. lost his driver’s license after DWI arrests but didn’t tell anyone. He went on to drive an ambulance on 63 medical calls before he was caught, according to an order last month from the St. Paul Civil Service Commission, acting as the city’s Veterans Preference Board, which upheld his termination.
A psychologist hired by Riser’s attorney testified that Riser’s post-traumatic stress disorder was “severe” and that his failure to report the loss of his driver’s license to the fire department, as required by city policy,
“was due to the impact of PTSD on his ability to make good decisions,” said the board’s findings of fact.
But a psychologist hired by the city testified that “she did not believe that his failure to inform his employer of his loss of driving privileges was related to his PTSD.”
Charles Horowitz, Riser’s attorney, said he was disappointed the commission didn’t impose a less-severe punishment.
“Combat veterans deserve better, particularly ones who have given as much for their country as Bill Riser,” Horowitz said.
The city board found that Riser’s not notifying the department about losing his license and continuing to drive an ambulance without one constituted misconduct and that Fire Chief Tim Butler’s decision to fire him was
DWI CASES PILED UP
Riser, the subject of a Pioneer Press article in 2009, spoke then about completing two tours of duty with the Army Reserve in Kuwait and Iraq. He was hired by the fire department in 2005 and deployed to Iraq in 2006.
Riser worked in a combat support hospital, which he described as his toughest assignment, saying he was surrounded daily by death and serious injury. He recovered and processed soldiers’ bodies.
After Riser returned to Minnesota in 2007 and was diagnosed with PTSD in 2008, he credited his fire department family with helping him.
“You need someone you can lean on, and they’ve let me,” Riser said in 2009. “They’ve been my outlet and listened. The older guys tell me: ‘Keep it up. I’ve been through it before. There’s better days ahead.’ They’ve been a strong pillar for my transition back from what I went through.”
But in August 2010, the DWIs started to pile up for Riser. He was convicted of misdemeanor driving while impaired in May 2011 and gross misdemeanor DWI in April and June 2012.
It wasn’t the DWIs that landed Riser in trouble with the fire department, but the way he handled them.
St. Paul has a policy for employees who have lost their driver’s licenses but are required to have one for their jobs — they must immediately notify their supervisor and are subject to discipline if they don’t. If they drive a city vehicle without a valid license, they are subject to termination.
Human resources checks the state’s database twice a year to ensure city employees who must have driver’s licenses actually do, said Angie Nalezny, the city’s human resources director. On the days the city checked, Riser’s license was valid, she said.
The board’s findings gave the following information about Riser’s driver’s license: It was revoked for about four months in 2010, after a DWI arrest. In 2011, it was revoked for about six months until November of that year, when the license was canceled as “inimical to
The department got wind of the problems in October 2011, when a St. Paul fire human resources manager received a call from a television reporter, requesting confirmation of Riser’s Dakota County arrest record. He didn’t confirm that the Riser in jail was a fire department employee. The manager checked and found out Riser had called in sick to work.
Butler ordered an investigation. The inquiry found that Riser drove an ambulance on 63 calls in 2010 and 2011 without a valid license and that he had misused sick time by calling in sick from jail.
RISER CALLED ‘AN EMBARRASSMENT’
Butler found “Riser’s misconduct placed the city at serious risk for substantial liability and … Mr. Riser had violated the public’s trust … and was an embarrassment.” In June, Butler told Riser he intended to fire him.
At a hearing with the city, Riser testified that he didn’t report the loss of his driver’s license “because he was not thinking right, not in a good place,” though he said he knew he was required to do so, according to the board’s findings. “He also testified that he was aware that others in the fire department who were in similar circumstances who reported their loss and completed chemical dependency treatment did not suffer adverse employment repercussions.”
The statement was a window into Riser’s thinking, Horowitz said.
“Even knowing that he wouldn’t lose this job, he didn’t report it because he was craving the camaraderie of the firehouse, which replicated the camaraderie of an active-duty soldier in a war zone,” he said.
The Minnesota Veterans Preference Act says public employees who are veterans and face discipline from a government entity are entitled to have their cases heard by a panel to determine whether sufficient evidence of misconduct or incompetence exists to warrant the punishment, Horowitz said. The panel is required, under Minnesota Supreme Court precedent, to consider whether extenuating circumstances warrant a less severe punishment, he said.
In addition to the evidence of Riser’s untreated PTSD affecting his judgment, Horowitz said, he presented information about extenuating circumstances, but he thought the board didn’t give them enough weight: that Riser’s performance evaluations had been “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations” and that he had no prior disciplinary action from the fire department.
Riser never reported to work under the influence of alcohol and “his driving without a license did not endanger the public in any way,” Horowitz said.
While on a leave of absence from the department after the DWI cases came to light, Riser received treatment for his PTSD. He also completed a program at Hazelden for alcohol use and is now sober, Horowitz said.
“There’s no dispute he had severe, untreated PTSD, and it’s well recognized that this condition can impair the judgment of a PTSD sufferer,” Horowitz said. “It’s a fairness thing, ultimately. Does the punishment fit the offense? I would argue no.”
But Butler said he found the commission’s decision “fair and just.”
“Mr. Riser’s actions are incompatible with the mission and values of the St. Paul Fire Department and the standards of public safety we are sworn to uphold,” he said.