SEBRING - A decorated, highly praised paramedic supervisor was fired in November because he abandoned his job.
That's the official story from Highlands County spokeswoman Gloria Rybinski in a Jan. 21 press release.
Troy J. Granata was dismissed twice, said Rybinski.
Granata was named VFW's Florida Paramedic of the Year after working a horrific February 2010 charter bus accident that killed five and injured many of the 32 senior citizens on board.
His side: "They wrongfully terminated me. I tried to tell them before and during, and I requested to be put on leave without pay until I proved it. And I did prove them wrong."
The crux of the issue was that on his doctor's advice, Granata took his wife's prescription.
And then the worst that could happen did happen. He was asked to take a drug test.
"I told them I was going to fail it," Granata said. And he did.
He was asked to provide a letter from his doctor, so he did that. Although he was one of the three highest-ranking employees at Highlands County EMS - the three are outranked only by Director Harvey Craven - Granata was fired.
Granata protested and hired a lawyer. The county and lab asked for more information: when was Granata's wife's prescription written? They reviewed more information from Granata's doctor too, and Granata was rehired, he said.
"We received information from a third-party vendor," Rybinski said. The Pennsylvania drug lab "reversed their decision, so we reversed our decision." Granata was granted his job back.
"But I had already hired an attorney," Granata said. He had racked up $6,000 in fees, and he wanted the county to pick up that cost, and promise of no retaliation.
"They refused to," Granata said. "They said if I return in a timely and orderly fashion, they would consider paying some of the fees."
Then, Granata said he got a letter out of the blue from the county. The administration hadn't heard from him, he had an open grievance that must be resolved.
"My attorney had been negotiating with their attorney," he countered.
If he attended the grievance hearing with his attorney, it would cost another $4,000. I wasn't going to gamble that." He offered mediation instead of a hearing officer. "The county refused to do that do," Granata said.
The county's side to this story is not clear. The county is required to allow the public to view personnel records, but because of privacy laws, the county redacted names, addresses and the reasons why Granata was fired, Rybinski said.
"And because of the nature of his termination, we cannot answer any questions. We cannot comment to the press or with anybody."
County Administrator June Fisher was interviewed by WFLA Channel 8 news, but only answered the question of whether county illegally terminated Granata, Rybinski said.
Why was 17-year veteran Granata fired the first time, on July 13?
"I cannot talk to you about what prompted his termination, because that is the law, and by me telling you, that is breaking the law," Rybinski said.
Did the county admit wrongdoing when Granata was rehired?
The lab "reversed their decision, so we reversed our decision," Rybinski said.
Granata was offered his job back with back pay and benefits like guaranteed overtime and shift differentials.
"Notice of reinstatement," read a July 31 letter from Human Resources Manager Melissa Bruns. "On July 25, 2013, the Human Resources Department was notified ... We would like to offer you reinstatement of your position as a Paramedic Supervisor. Please contact the Human Resources Manager with your decision by the end of the business day Monday, Aug. 5, 2013."
He relayed the letter to his attorney, who responded on Aug. 5.
"But he did not show up to work," Rybinski said.
"Dear Mr. Granata," Bruns wrote in a Nov. 7 letter. On Aug. 16, "you were offered reinstatement with back pay and benefits with a commencement date of Aug. 18, 2013. The letter also stated that if you did not return to work at the start of your shift... it would be deemed that you rejected the County's offer of reinstatement with back pay and benefits."
Rybinski said Granata was offered an Oct. 11 grievance hearing with County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete as a hearing officer, and a rescheduled hearing on Nov. 4, but Granata did not take the offer.
Gavarrete is the county supervisor's subordinate. "Could he give an independent decision and be fair?" Granata asked.
His lawyer, Jason Collier of Sarasota, explained: "Due to the county's actions in improperly terminating Mr. Granata, as well as the county's poor handling of this matter over the last several months since his termination, Mr. Granata has reached the conclusion that going through the county's grievance hearing at this time will be futile. Accordingly, Mr. Granata will not be attending the hearing presently scheduled for Nov. 4 and will be pursuing his claims through other channels, including the Ethics Commission and the Circuit Court. It is frankly shocking that the county has refused to make Mr. Granata whole."
Granata also lost his unemployment appeal, Rybinski said, producing a letter from the state employment commission.
Actually, he did receive five weeks of checks, but the county appealed, and then he lost, Granata said.
"We followed all the protocols and we did what we were supposed do to," Rybinski said. "That's why we offered his job back."
"We offered his job again, a second and a third time, but he didn't come back. That's when we terminated him the second time, because he abandoned his position," Rybinski said.
"We're here because multiple offers were not taken up," said Assistant County Administrator Randal Vosburg, who walked into the conference room while Rybinski was being interviewed.
Granata told his side on a memo that was initialed "T.G." He printed, "On 7-19-13 I was terminated for a (redacted.) Granata filled in the words, "positive drug test," because I could not produce a valid prescription. Per the paperwork I was not given the 72 hrs. to appeal this to the (redacted) - "medical review officer," Granata said - and the paperwork also has the violation on 7-18-13 at 10 a.m. see attachment. Not sure at this time."
A hand-printed note initialed "T.G.," continued with Granata filling in the words, "This is before I ever spoke with the (redacted 'Medical Review Officer') at 11:09 a.m. I feel like I was terminated before I had the chance to provide I had a valid reason for having (redacted 'tested positive'.) I also tried to resign from my position prior to being terminated and was told by Melisa and Harvey that I was not allowed to resign because I would be able to collect unemployment. I also feel like I should have been allowed to resign as the County's goal was to separate from myself."
If he resigned, he might lose his state retirement, Granata said.
Granata requested a meeting with the county commissioners to discuss his termination, "where he will, no doubt, once again incorrectly assert that he was terminated illegally," Highlands County employment attorney Michael H. Bowling wrote in a Dec. 18 letter to Bruns.
"I just wanted them to sit and listen to me," Granata said. "I didn't want to sue the county. I didn't want to settle with them. I just wanted justice."
However, Bowling warned, "his attorney was quite clear that all contact regarding Mr. Granata's employment/termination with the city (sic) be through counsel. Further, any comments made by staff or the commission at any such meeting may be misinterpreted and used in any potential subsequent litigation."
In an Aug. 8 letter, Collier pointed out that Granata's job reviews used phrases like "Troy's dependability and reliability... has been very good," "pleasure to work with," "presents good ideas to improve the system," "appearance always is professional," and "exudes professionalism."
"This was against the law and I did not do anything wrong," said Granata, who is not working now. "I want my job back. I have $10,000 in attorney fees now. I want them to pay it."
A Facebook page explains Granata's story and asks help for paying his legal fees: www.gofundme.com/53zsmw
Granata wrote Wednesday on Facebook to a friend, who saw that he was to be interviewed Thursday night on channel 8 news in Tampa: "I want to tell all of you that I based my whole career on two things, honesty and integrity. I can assure you that I went about this with both and it will be interesting to see how this pans out. I want to apologize to any innocent people that are caught up in this but, I only did what they forced me to."