Investigations

Fired Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay breaks silence

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) - It's been just over a year since the #MeToo movement swept the nation and the commonwealth. Former State Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay got swept up and swept out in its wake. He was fired by the Tom Wolf Administration when an allegation of sexual harassment, several years old, surfaced anew.

Solobay has not spoken to the media about what he calls unjust treatment.

Until now.

"We want our side of the story told," Solobay said during a sit-down interview at ABC27's Harrisburg studio.

He vividly remembers getting the dreaded Friday afternoon phone call.

"That says, 'thank you, but the governor decided he no longer needs your services.'"

The voice gave him  a choice: resign or be fired.

"I said, 'I said I resign under protest because I did not get due process.'"

Solobay insists that he too is a victim of #MeToo.

He was forced out, he believes, because of a 6-year old allegation made by a former staffer when Solobay was a state senator from western Pennsylvania. In 2011, the young woman said that Solobay slapped her rear end. He says it never happened.

"This girl was the age of my daughter. I know her mom and her father. I'm not gonna do anything," Solobay said with conviction.

But the woman is just as vehement that it did. Immediately following the alleged butt slapping she sent an email to her senate Democrat superiors writing in part.

"I understand that Tim is a very friendly person, but at times he has crossed and does cross the line of decency."

The accuser was moved to a different job in a different office within the caucus.

End of story.

Until the #MeToo story broke in 2017. The woman went public with Charlie Thompson of the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Her motivation for doing so, she said in the article, was to help future staffers.

"I want, especially that crop of young women, to be passionate about public service and feel like they can make a difference without worrying about the stigma and without having to worry about this culture any more."

The Wolf Administration acted swiftly.

"Within two days, a day and a half, I'm out," Solobay said shaking his head.

Unfair? 

"Truly unfair. And it's frustrating that it could that easily ruin an individual's life and career," Solobay said.

He watched the divisive Kavanaugh hearings and said he could relate when President Trump pushed back on #MeToo by saying this, "It's a very scary time for young men in America where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of," Trump said, igniting a firestorm of protests suggesting it's insensitive to victims .

"My own brother put that out on social media and I had to counter it," said Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania's Victims Advocate.

She says #MeToo is helping the abused, long silent, find their voice.

"It is a scary time for somebody who has behaved poorly in their past or who is actively assaulting someone because you are most likely now going to be held accountable, whereas five, 10, 15, years ago you were getting away with this.," Storm said.

Solobay, the former politician, understands optics and story lines. A powerful older male, a young female staffer, an accusation; it's toppled several big names in the past year.

"All's I know is this guy right here sitting in front of you did not do what he was accused of doing."

We did speak with the woman who made the allegation. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Wolf Administration also declined comment, except to say it has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment in the workplace.

It should be noted that cabinet secretaries are at will employees, meaning they can be fired for any reason or no reason.
      
Solobay says he continues to explore legal options to his termination. Not only did he lose his job, he says, but he's also lost career opportunities. He says he pursued government consulting work but feels he's now under a cloud of suspicion.

"Some positions that I thought would've been a slam dunk. The talks went so far but then fell off and they said, 'thank you but no thanks.'"

Storm wouldn't comment on the specifics of Solobay's case but says overwhelmingly it's the accuser that comes forward who pays the price professionally

"They would end up suffering," Storm said of those who make workplace allegations. "Either they lost their job, they got transferred, they got demoted, they lost the assignment and so unfortunately all the blame was shifted on to them. What the #MeToo movement has done is it's finally shifting the blame in the right place and shifting the blame on the people who are behaving poorly and criminally."


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