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Firefighters’ lawyer faces complaint

City officials say union’s attorney was rude, vulgar at bargaining table

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / May 18, 2012
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The City of Boston filed a formal complaint against a prominent labor lawyer Thursday, saying that what they termed his vulgar and vitriolic behavior at the negotiating table on behalf of the firefighters’ union has gone too far, even in the contentious realm of labor negotiations.

At a meeting Tuesday at the union’s Florian Hall, lawyer E. David Wanger allegedly berated city officials with obscenities and repeatedly interrupted by saying “Blah! Blah! Blah!,’’ according to a letter to the state Division of Labor Relations. Wanger mocked city officials by affecting a fake lisp, the letter said, and mimicked their responses by repeating what they said in a high-pitched voice while shaking his head.

“Because of the unconscionable behavior of the union’s attorney,’’ the letter stated, city officials warned they would not meet again with Wanger or firefighters unless the state appointed a permanent mediator to keep the discussion civil.

The union vigorously defended Wanger on Thursday and disputed the city’s description of the meeting, arguing that city lawyers pushed back just as hard. City representatives insulted and provoked Wanger, said Richard Paris, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 718.

“The city was doing the same thing to us,’’ Paris said. “It was not a kissing game in there, that’s for sure. But Dave Wanger is trying to do the right thing. . . . He looks out for the health and welfare and well-being of firefighters.’’

Wanger did not respond Thursday to several messages seeking comment. The state Division of Labor Relations does not comment on pending cases, spokeswoman Alison Harris said. Harris also declined to discuss how the division operates.

The clash Tuesday over union grievances does not bode well for contract talks between firefighters and the administration of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, two parties that have a bitter history. After meeting a half-dozen times to discuss a new contract, they are already deadlocked, said Paul Curran, the city’s director of labor relations. The two sides cannot even agree on ground rules for the negotiations, Curran said. Paris declined to discuss contract talks.

Wanger is a fierce advocate for scores of municipal workers and other unions in Massachusetts, including the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents roughly 575 employees at the Globe. He has held a license to practice law in Massachusetts since 1966 and has never been publicly disciplined for misconduct, according to the state Board of Bar Overseers, which regulates lawyers.

In 2004, Wanger was honored by the Labor Guild of Boston with a Cushing-Gavin Award, which recognizes people for “excellence in labor-management relations, exemplifying moral integrity, [and] professional competence,’’ according to an account at the time in the Globe.

Wanger may be best known for his role in the firefighters’ last contact dispute, a four-year struggle over wages and mandatory drug and alcohol testing. Wanger’s firm - Angoff, Goldman, Manning, Wanger, Hynes & Dunlap of Norwood - cited his role in the case on its website as a victory because firefighters won larger pay raises than other city workers and made fewer concessions.

“David Wanger is the consummate professional,’’ said Edward A. Kelly, the former head of Local 718 who led the union during the last contact dispute and has known Wanger for three decades. “I’ve never been in his presence when his demeanor has been anything other than composed.’’

But the city’s letter described Wanger’s “inappropriate, unprofessional, and demeaning conduct’’ as a “longstanding problem.’’ In its filing to the state, the city included a letter dated Oct. 22, 2009, to Wanger admonishing him for making a vulgar joke directed at one of the city’s female hearing officers.

According to the letter, Wanger deliberately said “orifice’’ instead of “office.’’ When a lawyer for the city objected, Wanger asked why it was a problem, according to the letter, because he said the female hearing officer seemed “titillated’’ by the discussion.

The same letter accused Wanger of referring to a lawyer with the last name Ambash as the city’s “outhouse’’ counsel. When another lawyer objected, Wanger “hurled a stream of insults,’’ the letter said.

City officials did not file a formal complaint about the alleged incident in 2009. On Thursday, in addition to the filing with the Division of Labor Relations, the city contacted the Board of Overseers to determine if a complaint could be filed, Curran said.

In Tuesday’s meeting at Florian Hall, Paris was present and acknowledged that Wanger uttered one obscenity across the table. It came in response to a comment about whether Wanger grew up in Newton, a remark that Paris said seemed anti-Semitic because Wanger is Jewish.

City officials described a different version of the conversation. Curran, the city’s director of labor relations, said that after a litany of obscenities, he asked Wanger to stop swearing.

Wanger argued that the word he was using was not vulgar, Curran said, and then began to taunt Curran about where he grew up, suggesting it might have been a genteel suburb far from the rough-and-tumble city.

Curran, a native Bostonian, said he responded that he did not grow up in Wellesley or Newton. The remark, Curran said, was not a reference to Wanger’s heritage.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

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