Capt. Andrew Ratcliff Jr., who is white, has been suspended without pay for allegedly sending the text to former fire chief Richard Anderson, who is black.
Ratcliff has been suspended since Sept. 6 and his suspension will be lifted Oct. 5.
A message left at a telephone listing for Andrew Ratcliff Jr. was not returned, but Morgan City Fire Chief Morris Price said the captain inadvertently sent the message to Anderson when he meant to send it to another fireman named Richard, one of Ratcliff’s friends from out of town.
“He regrets ever sending that type of text,” Price said.
According to Anderson, he received the text from Ratcliff just before 7 a.m. on Aug. 10.
It read: “I was sitting at the traffic light on the road yesterday next to a car load of n***ers when a big semi-trailer drove right over the top of their car! “Wow!” I thought, “That could’ve been me” … so I went and got a truck driving license.”
Anderson, who worked for the department for 24 years and four months before retiring in recent years, said he never had any problems of this nature before with Ratcliff.
In fact, he said he had a relationship with Ratcliff, because he still had the captain’s number in his cellphone, and he would talk with Ratcliff when they saw each other in public.
When he received the text, Anderson said, “It shocked the hell out of me.”
After getting over the text, Anderson said he responded by calling Ratcliff “racist” and using an expletive.
Anderson originally filed a complaint against Ratcliff with the Morgan City Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board and Price on Aug. 16, on behalf of himself and the black community requesting an investigation into the text that Anderson called “disturbing.”
“I no longer have confidence that Andrew Ratcliff can function as a competent civil servant,” Anderson wrote in his complaint to Price, which also was sent to Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte and the City Council. “He has demonstrated that he has a serious dislike for the black community.”
The local civil service board met on Aug. 25 and agreed to table any action until the mayor and fire chief finished its investigation.
Meanwhile, Price said there was not much to investigate because Ratcliff never denied sending the message, so he suspended him for 30 days without pay for conduct unbecoming of an officer, personal conduct and a discourteous and wantonly offensive nature toward the public.
While Price said Ratcliff may have had minor disciplinary issues in the past, such as being late for work, he said he had done nothing of this nature previously.
“I made a decision that I thought 30 days was going to be sufficient punishment for his actions,” Price said. “The man’s had a good career. He’s been with the department 21 years. I figured he deserved a second chance to redeem himself for these actions to show that this is not the type of person he is.”
Ratcliff did not appeal the suspension.
After the suspension was handed down on Sept. 6, the board met again on Sept. 8 and said they would hear testimony on Sept. 22 regarding the incident.
Civil Service Board Chairman Paul Harvey, who is a captain with the fire department, said he had issued subpoenas to Matte, Ratcliff, Anderson, Price, and subpoenaed files for Ratcliff and Anderson.
In the meantime, the Office of the State Examiner for the Municipal Fire & Police Civil Service inquired about the pending investigation, and when provided with documents related to the incident, they opined in a letter to Morgan City Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board Secretary Carolyn Robicheaux that under state law, it is not advisable to investigate Ratcliff.
While the state Examiner’s Office said the board could investigate the incident if Price had not investigated it previously, the State Examiner’s office wrote that because he already had made a ruling on it that Matte accepted and had been implemented, that the board should not investigate it again.
“We believe that there is nothing to gain by the board conducting a second investigation into the same misconduct,” the letter said. “The employee cannot be disciplined twice for the same misconduct.”
The board agreed at its Sept. 22 meeting not to investigate the incident.
State Examiner Melinda Livingston said this morning that if the board had agreed to investigate the incident, she didn’t think it would hold up legally.
However, she said if Ratcliff had appealed the case to the board, then the board would have had the right to keep the same sentence or lessen it.
“They’re basically going to be determining if the appointing authority acted in good faith or cause,” she said.
Harvey said Anderson wanted Ratcliff terminated, but that decision wasn’t for the former chief to decide.
“That’s something that’s in the hands of the community now,” Anderson said.
The former chief did say a longer period of suspension or a demotion would have been more suitable that what Ratcliff received.
“A 30-day suspension, that’s just a slap on the wrist,” Anderson said.
While she said she doesn’t condone Ratcliff’s actions, Livingston said a 30-day suspension is a “very stiff penalty” adding that someone could be suspended up to 90 days in a year.
Anderson said the whole process of the investigation was “flawed,” because he never found out where Ratcliff got the text from, how long he had the text before sending it, who he sent it to besides Anderson, and even the justification of why Price chose a 30-day suspension.
He said he wished Matte would have been more involved in the matter and Anderson’s district councilman, Lou Tamporello, would have been more involved in the matter.
“I just think it should have been handled differently,” Anderson said.
While he noted that Ratcliff has apologized to him, Anderson said he waited until after he found out that action could be pending against him by the former chief.
Because he didn’t contact him soon after the incident, Anderson said he took it to mean that Ratcliff meant to send him the message.
The former chief said if he would have received an apology from Ratcliff soon after he sent the text, maybe he could have been more accepting of an apology.
Because he waited so long, Anderson said it was too late.
Anderson noted that he has no ill will toward anyone else in the Morgan City Fire Department and does not think the department is racist. He said his only problem was with Ratcliff.
Still, Price said he was concerned about the perception this incident gave the public about his department.
“I wanted to make sure that the citizens knew that this was an isolated incident that should never have happened to start with,” Price said. “The Morgan City Fire Department does not go to fires and say, ‘well, who lives here? What color are they? Are they rich or are they poor?’ We try to do 100 percent for our citizens no matter what neighborhood we’re in, no matter who lives in a house.”
Asked if he would pursue the matter any further, Anderson said, “The only thing that I can tell you right now is it’s in the hands of the community. The community right now, they’re not happy with the outcome.”