'Against the family': Ex-Sumter assistant fire chief alleges blowback after reporting alleged conduct of former co-workers


A former assistant fire chief at Sumter Fire Department says officials forced him out after he blew the whistle on a years-long pattern of questionable conduct at the department.

Longtime firefighter Brian Christmas laid out his case in a recent lawsuit that contends he was defamed by the city and pushed out of his job without cause. He also alleges multiple high-ranking employees at the City of Sumter and Sumter Fire Department turned a blind eye to suspicious activities.

When Christmas reported his concerns to law enforcement, Sumter City Manager Deron McCormick told Christmas he had gone “outside the family” and “needed to be punished,” the lawsuit alleges.

City officials declined to comment, citing the litigation.

“I cannot comment on ongoing litigation," McCormick said in a statement. "When a lawsuit is filed, the City is required to defend itself in court, rather than in the court of public opinion."

The Sumter Item and The Post and Courier collaborated to look into the allegations as part of its Uncovered initiative, which aims to shine light on questionable government conduct and the systems that leave it unchecked.

In his suit, Christmas accused fire officials of a range of wrongdoing, including using company time and vehicles for personal reasons and investigating suspicious fires involving a relative, despite a clear conflict of interest.

He named and leveled accusations against Assistant Fire Chief Ernie Dollard and Fire Chief Karl Ford in the suit, which was filed in the Third Judicial Circuit. Both men declined to comment.

Sumter Fire Department, operated jointly by Sumter County and the City of Sumter, handles emergencies across the county of roughly 140,000 people.

Christmas joined the department in 1997, according to the city’s website, rising to the rank of assistant chief in 2019. He was certified as a Class 1 police officer and conducted fire investigations.

He officially retired in November 2023. He now serves as a fire chief in North Carolina.

But his retirement was far from voluntary, Elizabeth Millender said in an interview. Millender is one of Christmas’ attorneys with the Columbia firm Cromer, Babb & Porter.

“Retirement was not his choice,” she said. “He was essentially given the impossible choice of, either you retire or we're going to terminate you.”

Christmas began to grow suspicious of officials’ conduct as early as 2020, the lawsuit says, when Dollard intervened in a fire investigation that involved his uncle.

On Oct. 28, 2020, Christmas began an investigation into a fire that occurred at the old VB Williams Furniture Co., a 500,000-square-foot warehouse off South Lafayette Drive and Fulton Street in southern Sumter.

The fire engulfed the warehouse, which is in a mixed residential and commercial part of the city, burning for several days. A plume of thick black smoke rose above Sumter, visible for miles. Crews and equipment from Sumter, Shaw Air Force Base, Clarendon County, Camden and Columbia all responded.

It was one of several fires that occurred at the property over four years, leading to public speculation that the building's owner may have been involved in setting the fires, the lawsuit claims.

According to The Sumter Item archives, VB Williams suffered three fires between 2018 and 2022.

Because of the nature of the fires, Christmas contacted the State Law Enforcement Division and Sumter Police Department in 2020, according to the lawsuit.

Yet the lawsuit says that when Dollard arrived, he took over operations — despite the fact that his uncle-in-law, Charles Hodge, owned the building.

That was a clear conflict of interest, Christmas reportedly told Ford, the fire chief. But Ford and Dollard reserved their anger for Christmas, for he had involved an outside agency, the lawsuit says.

It is unclear whether SLED or police acted on Christmas' tip or investigated the fire. Reporters have requested documents from SLED regarding its involvement in the matter but had received no records by publication time.

Hodge, the building's owner, did not respond to requests for comment.

Christmas also became concerned when Dollard’s brother, Joey, was promoted to division chief in 2021.

The promotion, authorized by Ford, allowed Joey Dollard to report directly to his brother. Joey Dollard’s firefighter son, Jason, was placed on his shift as well. This caused chain-of-command issues, the lawsuit claims. When Jason had concerns about his job or responsibilities, he went straight to his uncle instead of his direct supervisor.

In 2022, Christmas noticed Ford making trips during business hours while using the fire department pickup truck to pick up golf carts, ATVs and trailers he had purchased to resell, the lawsuit alleges.

He also used government gas cards for transportation, including once for a personal trip to Florida for a cruise, the lawsuit claims.
Dollard was also involved in these purchases, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges Dollard and Ford went to pick up a small utility vehicle using a city pickup truck on a workday.

When asked, Christmas, via his attorneys, said he became aware of these occurrences through “personal observations.”

It was in 2023 that Christmas decided he had no choice but to report the conduct to an outside agency, Millender said.

“Mr. Christmas felt like he had to report it at that point to protect not only the department, but also himself, to the extent that city government or SLED or any other law enforcement became aware of it some other way,” she said.

After contacting the South Carolina State Ethics Commission and a Sumter County Council member, Christmas spoke with SLED on Oct. 17, 2023.

In the meeting, SLED referred the matter to Sumter Police Department, which then informed McCormick. A meeting was set with Christmas and the City of Sumter’s organizational improvement director on Oct. 18.

In the meeting, Christmas described his concerns. In response, the director asked Christmas what his exit plan was, according to the lawsuit. Christmas said he did not want to leave his job.

McCormick then joined the meeting and allegedly pressured Christmas to retire, saying he needed to provide a retirement date by the following week.

McCormick allegedly told Christmas that if Ford found out he went to SLED, “it won’t be good.” If Ford came after Christmas, McCormick said the city would put Christmas on “terminal leave” until his retirement date. According to the lawsuit, McCormick referenced the Bible’s New Testament, saying that Christmas had “sinned” and “needed to be punished” because he “went outside of the family.”

As a result of the Oct. 18 meeting, Christmas submitted his retirement on Oct. 24, 2023, effective Nov. 7, 2023. His email access was immediately removed, and he was sent home the same day, according to the lawsuit.

Christmas allegedly contested the forced retirement through a grievance process, to no avail.

Christmas subsequently learned Dollard’s brother told community members that Christmas was “run off” from the fire department because “he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.” The lawsuit also accuses Dollard’s brother and Dollard himself of defamatory statements.

The suit claims that the city wrongfully discharged Christmas, defamed him and violated the South Carolina Whistleblower Act. It also claims that Ford and Dollard engaged in civil conspiracy.

Christmas has asked for damages for lost wages, reputational harm, diminished earning capacity, pain, suffering, stress and anxiety.

Through his attorney, Christmas declined to comment for this story.