A federal judge in Philadelphia last week ruled against a lawsuit from that city’s former chief information officer claiming he had been fired over his objections to the diversity policies of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration.
The judge found that Charles Brennan failed to prove that his January 2018 dismissal was an act of retaliation for his criticism of the city’s hiring practices and handling of certain contracts, including one for the Philadelphia Police Department’s body-worn cameras and agreements with the cable giant Comcast.
In his 29-page opinion, Judge Jan DuBois wrote that Brennan’s claims that his termination violated his rights under the First Amendment did not hold water because Brennan “was acting as a City employee, not a private citizen, when he made his various complaints about the City’s purportedly illegal and wasteful conduct.”
In his suit originally filed in April 2018, Brennan charged that shortly after Kenney’s administration took office, a mayoral aide told him that the city Office of Information Technology’s workforce had “too many Whites” and “too many Asians.” Kenney, who was elected in 2015, had implemented a “diversity initiative” upon being sworn in to lead Philadelphia, where about 44% of the city’s 1.6 million residents are Black.
‘Offensive and discriminatory’
While lawyers for the city were unsuccessful in getting the judge to dismiss the case in 2018, they filed a motion for summary judgment last October.
Brennan testified during the suit that he felt that the hiring practices the Kenney administration sought — recruiting more Black and Hispanic IT workers — were “offensive and discriminatory.” He complained to his supervisor at the time, then-Chief Administrative Officer Christine Derenick-Lopez, who in turn relayed Brennan’s objections to Kenney’s chief of staff, Jane Slusser, according to court records.
Brennan’s suit also made an issue of Derenick-Lopez asking him to go through sensitivity training, which he refused to attend unless forcibly ordered. Court records showed that this recommendation came about after Brennan made inappropriate comments about women. One such incident occurred before a July 2017 meeting between city officials and executives from SAP, with Brennan saying of one of the IT services giant’s female executives, “either she’s too young to have that job or she’s too pretty to have that job, one or the other.”
While Brennan acknowledged making the comment about the SAP executive, he resisted Derenick-Lopez’s recommendation for sensitivity training when admonished for making the comment. Later, according to court documents, he told Derenick-Lopez that if she did order him to go, he’d file a complaint U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she only made such orders to white male employees.
Brennan had also clashed with Derenick-Lopez and Slusser over the Philadelphia Police Department’s procurement of body cameras. The department was in the middle of a pilot program with camera vendor Axon when Brennan, himself a former deputy police commissioner for IT, was hired as citywide CIO. According to court records, he argued that when it came time to award a contract for 4,000 cameras, Axon was the only firm that qualified under the city’s request for proposals, resulting in a May 2017 showdown between Brennan and Derenick-Lopez, Slusser and other City Hall officials.
The city used a noncompetitive purchasing agreement to buy the cameras from Axon in October 2017, though Brennan “did not raise any additional complaints” about the process after the May meeting, DuBois wrote in his opinion.
Another fight over contracts erupted in November 2017, when Comcast appeared on track to miss a Dec. 31 deadline to repair the fiber network it operates for the city. The company had already blown one deadline earlier that summer, incurring a $250,000 penalty, and Brennan told Derenick-Lopez another fine might be in order. He told the court that Derenick-Lopez said to “take it easy” on Comcast and negotiate with the company.
The Comcast dispute occurred about the same time as Brennan and Derenick-Lopez’s arguments about sensitivity training. By December 2017, Derenick-Lopez told Slusser, Kenney’s chief of staff, that Brennan “was not the right fit for this kind of role,” as CIO, the opinion reads. In her testimony last year, Slusser said she and Derenick-Lopez decided together to remove Brennan and inform Kenney of their decision. He was fired Jan. 12, 2018.
“As CIO, plaintiff was responsible for hiring decisions in his department and overseeing technology matters for the City, including the procurement of the police body cameras and enforcement of the Comcast franchise agreement,” DuBois wrote in his judgement.
Brennan was later replaced by Mark Wheeler, whom Kenney hired in September 2018. Derenick-Lopez left the city government in June 2019 and is now a senior director for employee engagement at a pharmaceutical firm.