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City audit faults L.A. Fire Department's disciplinary process

April 15, 2010 |  6:00 am

Despite repeated vows to reform the way it handles costly discrimination and misconduct complaints, the Los Angeles Fire Department relies on a disciplinary system plagued by poor documentation, uneven punishment and a lack of clear guidelines, according to a city audit.

The allegations outlined in the 220-page report mirror findings that have been raised repeatedly in city audits dating from 1994. 

The cases cited in the study occurred between late 2007 and last year -- after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and top fire officials vowed to change department culture in the wake of legal payouts that had cost taxpayers millions of dollars to settle claims of harassment, retaliation and discrimination.

The audit, conducted by the Fire Commission's office of independent assessor, credited the department with making improvements but noted that it has a way to go to address longstanding problems in its investigative process. The report was presented Tuesday to the Fire Commission.

Among the problem cases cited in the latest audit:

  • A firefighter told two Jewish firefighters, "I'll stick you in an oven," and later pushed a firehouse bench toward one of the men after he filed a discrimination complaint. A station captain failed to take action after being told of the comments, and department investigators failed to fully investigate the incident involving the bench.

  • A firefighter used a racial epithet in front of several firefighters who were having dinner with an African American colleague after a department golf tournament. The firefighter should have received time off but was only issued a written reprimand.
  • Department investigators engaged in alleged misconduct when serving a subpoena for confidential medical records during a disciplinary probe. The audit recommended that the department immediately stop seeking investigative subpoenas, a practice that exposes the city to legal liability, until a formal policy is written.
  • An off-duty paramedic was caught by police with a prostitute in his car as the two appeared ready to engage in a sexual act. Department investigators conducted a cursory interview and failed to file adequately researched reports. In the end, the paramedic received six days off.

Battalion Chief Ronnie Villanueva said in an interview Wednesday that the department acknowledged the problems outlined in the audit and is working with the Fire Commission to reform its investigation and disciplinary system.

"We embrace the report," said Villanueva, a department spokesman. "We need to change the way we do business. We need to improve our process."

-- Robert J. Lopez

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