East St. Louis fires veteran firefighter for disobeying order to take drug test

News-DemocratMay 16, 2013 

— A veteran East St. Louis firefighter who was charged in Texas with drug possession has been terminated by the East St. Louis Police and Fire Board.

Khari Sharp, a 10-year veteran of the department, said he plans to appeal. His lawyer, Eric Kayira, argued he did not have time to prepare an adequate defense.

This firing, which came late Tuesday night after a meeting of the board, was not due to the pending drug charges. Fire Chief Jason Blackmon recommended that Sharp be terminated for disobeying a direct order to go with Assistant Chief Derrick Burns and Union Local 23 President Brandon Walls to Memorial Hospital in Belleville to take a drug test. The test must be taken within an hour after an order is issued, according to the union contract. Blackmon issued the order on March 14.

Four days earlier, Sharp was charged in Texas with possession of marijuana. Police reported they found $50,000 in cash on him.

By not obeying the order, "He violated the East St. Louis Fire Department's agreement with the union, which says an employee who refuses to comply with an order to submit to a drug or alcohol test based upon reasonable suspicion within one hour shall be subject to discharge for insubordination," Blackmon said.

Sharp was given an order to go take a drug test and said, "Let's do this," according to testimony at the board hearing. He left the office with Burns and Walls, but asked Walls if he could move his vehicle, which he said was parked in front of a fire hydrant. Wall said he could do so and told him he'd meet him in front of the building. Wall went to the front of the building to wait for Sharp. Burns also went to get his vehicle and joined Walls in the front of the building. They said Sharp never showed up.

Burns testified that he and Walls drove around at least three times looking for Sharp, but they never found him. At one point they drove to Engine House 425 where Sharp was working before he was called to Blackmon's office. He was not there. Walls tried calling Sharp on several occasions and did not get an answer.

"At some point, Walls said he got a hold of Sharp and Sharp told him he had an emergency and had four hours to go to the hospital according to the contract. At another time, he told Walls he was going to see his pastor and another time he said he was going to check himself into drug rehabilitation at Gateway Hospital, Wall testified.

Sharp testified that he was not aware he had only one hour to take the test.

Sharp, under questioning by Rice, said he arrived at Memorial Hospital before 11 a.m., went to the emergency room where he thought he was to take the test and later found out he was in the wrong place. He said he went to Belleville Memorial Hospital and didn't see Walls or Burns and later took the test. He said he didn't remember the names of the people he saw in the emergency room or at the drug testing site. He didn't produce any documents at the hearing to support his claims.

"I am disappointed by the board's decision," Sharp said afterward. "The hearing to me seemed more personal than professional. My counsel and I are exploring subsequent options including review and formal action."

Kayira said Walls and Burns disobeyed a direct order by not taking Sharp directly to Memorial Hospital and allowing him to leave them to move his vehicle from the fire hydrant.

After the meeting, the commissioners -- Jessie Davis, the Rev. Johnny Scott, Ramonda Fleming, Larry Hampton Sr. and board Chairman Virge Riley -- said the evidence was clear: Sharp disobeyed the chief's direct order. They said they did not believe his statement that he didn't know what the policy said about drug testing.

Blackmon said Sharp was a good firefighter and that the decision was not personal.

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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