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L.A. pays $2.53 million to captains in fire department harassment

July 2, 2010 |  1:48 pm

The costs of a 2004 firehouse incident in which a black firefighter was fed dog food continues to rise even as the Los Angeles city budget is already battered by recession.

The City Council approved the payment Friday of $2.53 million to two white fire captains, who won a court case alleging the department racially discriminated against them in the punishments they received for the incident.

That figure was almost $900,000 more than the original $1.6 million that a jury awarded the captains in 2008.

The extra costs to the city included $550,000 in fees for the attorney representing Los Angeles fire Capt. Chris Burton and Capt. John Tohill in trial, on appeal and before the California Supreme Court. It also included $380,000 in interest payments on the award and attorneys' fees, at 7% annually, as required by state law, said Greg Smith, the attorney representing Burton and Tohill.

The city also spent additional funds to hire Ed Zappia, a private attorney, to defend the case in civil court, appellate court and to argue it again before the state Supreme Court.

The is being spent for a case "we would have settled for $250,000 before it went to trial," Smith said. "We made numerous efforts to try to get some sort of resolution, but always to deaf ears."

The case stems from an incident at the Westchester firehouse when black firefighter Tennie Pierce was fed dog food in his spaghetti.

It was a prank, firefighters later said, after an earlier volleyball game in which Pierce, playing well, kept saying "feed the Big Dog," referring to the nickname by which he was known.

Tohill bought the can of dog food, intending to put it in front of Pierce in the firehouse as a joke, Smith said. A Latino firefighter later cooked the dog food into the spaghetti and fed it to Pierce unbeknowns to anyone else until later, Smith said.

The Latino firefighter was suspended for four days. Tohill and Burton were suspended for a month. Burton has since retired; Tohill is retiring soon, Smith said.

The punishments ended their opportunities for promotions, Smith said. "Their authority was completely undermined because they were labeled racist," he said.

The Council voted to settle a discrimination lawsuit brought by Pierce out of court. At first they awarded him $2.7 million. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed that figure after fierce political reaction to the award and photos surfaced of Pierce involved in firehouse pranks. The council later approved a $1.5-million settlement to avoid trial. The city spent an additional $1.3 million on legal fees in the Pierce case.

"My understanding is that the city is in the mode of they won't settle cases," Smith said. "If you won't settle cases, you're always going to have the possibility of large hits."

Another discrimination case Smith brought before the city involved Los Angeles police officer Robert Hill. Hill was awarded $3.1 million in September 2008 in a case Smith claims the city could have settled out of court for much less.

The city continues to fight it on appeal, while interest payments on the award amount to $1,000 a day, Smith said.

-- Sam Quinones