Independent investigation clears town of political bias allegations

Gilbert mural
An outside law firm acting as independent investigator into allegations of political bias found no wrongdoing on Gilbert employees' part. (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

An outside law firm acting as independent investigator into allegations of political bias found no wrongdoing on Gilbert employees' part. (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

An outside law firm has cleared town officials of allegations that some staff members targeted employees for their political beliefs and used town resources to further their personal political agendas.

It also cleared the town of allegations that it used unfair hiring practices in recruitment to diversify the fire and rescue department.

The report from attorneys at the firm Pierce Coleman, which was retained as an independent investigator into the matter, concluded the town “applied standard and consistent procedures to its official speech and communications” and “the town’s social media messaging and public communications were balanced and even.”

It further found that in recruiting for the fire department, the town “followed consistent procedures with an emphasis on candidate qualifications, and the investigating team found no evidence that hiring standards were lowered at any time during this process.”

The allegations came after Judicial Watch, a group that describes itself as a political watchdog and uses extensive Freedom of Information Act requests in its efforts, made a large FOIA request of Gilbert officials Aug. 2. The request was addressed to Town Manager Patrick Banger.

Banger requested the investigation from Pierce Coleman on Oct. 14.

The firm noted that Judicial Watch’s public records request made four allegations:

  • The town has promoted “the political Marxist agenda of Black Lives Matter ... as well as Democrat Party elected officials”;

  • The town has “approved and is actively promoting and engaging in political speak by publicly supporting the BLM political and social agenda while using taxpayer funds”;

  • Gilbert Chief Digital Officer Dana Berchman on June 8 “used town of Gilbert and taxpayer money to express her personal political views and agenda by using the town of Gilbert’s governmental social networking to support a particular political platform, which includes that of Marxism and the BLM organization; and

  • The town is engaging in employment discrimination by enabling or allowing disparate treatment of employees based on “conflicting political, personnel and policy issues within the town of Gilbert.”

The firm indicated in the report it reviewed the documents supplied to Judicial Watch under its public records request as well as additional documents the investigators requested.

In reviewing the town’s social media posts, the investigators found the town to have expressed balanced political viewpoints in the town’s official speech. While there appeared to be a townwide emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion issues, including supporting many events, holidays and causes, there was an even greater emphasis in public posts on police, firefighter, military and other public service officers’ celebrations, according to the report.

Investigators found the town posted on a variety of events:

  • Women’s Day (one post)

  • domestic violence awareness (one post)

  • Black Lives Matter peaceful protests/social media blackout/police statements (eight posts)

  • COVID-19/vaccine/mask awareness (two posts)

  • police appreciation (14 posts)

  • firefighter appreciation (one post)

  • veteran appreciation (two posts)

  • public safety telecommunicators appreciation (two posts)

Additionally, investigators did not find any indication that Berchman used the town’s social media or any other town resources to express her own personal political views or any political agenda.

Investigators also reviewed the cases of four firefighters and a heavy equipment operator for the town who had complaints filed against them for their political expressions on items such as the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and COVID-19 vaccines or mask protocols.

In the cases of the heavy equipment operator and three firefighters, the town noted the complaints but did not take any disciplinary actions based on the records reviewed since the employees did not violate a town policy.

The fourth firefighter, however, faced progressive discipline, according to the report, for making derogatory comments about town coworkers and attributing his opinion to others, then later for violating town policies by utilizing town resources to create a political statement video and expressing political opinions while representing that he was a Gilbert firefighter.

The investigators also reviewed firefighter recruitment during 2020 and 2021 and found no evidence of unfair hiring practices within the recruitment process.
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.