Earlier this week, representatives of the Omaha Fire Department told Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning that they would no longer process arson evidence through the county lab, citing an order from Mayor Jean Stothert.
Except there was no such order, Stothert said.
“Whoever had told him that from the Fire Department — that was inaccurate,” she said. “That was false.”
Dunning, a Stothert supporter, said his staff members got a call Tuesday from a fire investigator who told them not to process debris from a recent fire. The officer said the directive came from the Mayor’s Office and suggested that it was meant as a cost-saving measure, Dunning said.
“That was the inference,” he said.
So Dunning traded emails with Marty Bilek, Stothert’s chief of staff who is his own former chief deputy. Bilek told him it wasn’t true and not to return the evidence.
“If they’re playing around with somebody’s case, that’s not funny,” Dunning said.
The incident highlights an escalating public feud between Stothert and Fire Chief Mike McDonnell over the Fire Department’s finances. Stothert has barred fire officials from talking publicly about the budget, and news media requests for interviews with fire officials must go through her office.
Because the incident is budget-related, McDonnell would not be allowed to speak about the issue, per the directive, Stothert said.
“It’s not a he-said, she-said issue,” she said.
Bilek emailed McDonnell Thursday night to reiterate that the Fire Department’s lab work would still be processed by the county, Stothert said.
Bilek has asked Dunning to figure out what it costs the city each year to process Fire Department evidence at the county lab.
In a typical month, the lab analyzes five to 10 pieces of evidence submitted by the Fire Department, Dunning said. Each piece of evidence usually involves multiple samples, and the county lab charges $30 per sample.