By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
IF YOU’VE HAD REPAIR WORK done at your home, you know the trepidation of watching a work crew rip open the walls. Who knows what you’ll find? Long-ignored problems, failing systems, even massive rot. The same holds true at City Hall, at least when it comes to employee lawsuits. Most council members want them quickly gone, if they can bear to look at them at all. They settle cases quickly — and expensively — but don’t pore over the messy details.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s veto of a $2.7 million settlement for Tennie Pierce, a black firefighter whose colleagues laced his spaghetti with dog food, had the impact of a small wrecking ball. The mayor’s veto ripped open the walls, forcing the council to take another look at the Fire Department’s ugly inner workings and the increasingly messy details of a highly contested employee case.
Asked to review Villaraigosa’s veto, council members found themselves on Tuesday facing Pierce, a 51-year-old Angeleno who fought back sobs as he described his anger over the dog-food incident. The council heard from his wife, who told them the incident had destroyed the 6-foot-5-inch firefighter’s career and devastated his children. And they listened to his attorney, who argued that the mayor’s veto sends a message to employee whistleblowers that if they speak out, they’ll have no protection.
“I feel physically sick,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn.
The council failed, on a 9-6 vote, to override the veto. And now, like a home-repair project gone bad, the legal costs at the Fire Department are almost certain to skyrocket.
The problem is, Pierce is only one of the firefighters who lined up in court with allegations of discrimination. Name the category: race, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation. They’ve all hit the Fire Department in recent years. And for every plaintiff, Exhibit A will be the city’s own audit of the Fire Department, completed nearly a year ago by City Controller Laura Chick, who essentially concluded that fire stations are hotbeds of hazing and workplace harassment. “This is evidence of a systematically wrong and sick organization,” Pierce’s attorney, Genie Harrison, told the council. “I don’t need to convince you of that. Your own city structure has told me I’m right.”
While Pierce’s dog-food case has been in the news, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo had been moving far more quietly on another seven-figure payout for yet another former firefighter: Brenda Lee, a black lesbian who sued the department for discrimination and retaliation last year. Her supervisors say she was a combative worker who actually got into a physical fight with a male firefighter at the scene of an emergency.
Lee claimed she has faced various forms of bias over a decade, telling Councilman Bernard Parks recently that one of her colleagues spiked her mouthwash with urine. And now, city officials are terrified of the next stomach-churning claim. “This case is incendiary,” said Harrison, who also represents Lee. “They should be scared.”
Very quietly, Delgadillo offered Lee a hefty $2.5 million settlement in September, according to documents filed at Superior Court. Lee rejected the offer, hired Harrison, and promptly asked a court to allow Chick’s 79-page audit to be used as evidence at trial. Parks warned that a third discrimination case could result in a $1 million settlement.
But the Fire Department is no longer just a financial threat to taxpayers. The agency has swiftly become a political threat to the nervous elected players in City Hall. Villaraigosa, who favored the Pierce settlement in October when it went before the city’s obscure claims board, appeared unprepared for the angry response to his surprise veto in heavily black South L.A. Mindful of the speed with which African-American voters abandoned former mayor James Hahn in 2005 after he refused to reappoint Parks as police chief, Villaraigosa tried to deliver a nuanced defense of his veto. In e-mails to other elected officials, the mayor said he doesn’t necessarily oppose the $2.7 million settlement; he just wants a review.
Moreover, attorneys in Delgadillo’s office fear that if spurned, Pierce and Lee could quickly become Exhibit B, testifying to the alleged “pattern and practices” of the Fire Department in future cases filed by firefighters. Lee and Pierce could appear as witnesses in even more cases, bolstered by the Chick audit and the well-publicized anger directed by council members at embattled Fire Chief William Bamattre, who concedes he’s struggled to change the culture of the Fire Department.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Pierce’s voice cracked as he told the council how he sought to transfer out of his fire station, where he was fed dog food, only to be sent back. Yet the former firefighter copped to his own role in hazing sessions photographed 12 years ago. One image included a firefighter wrapped in a sheet that read “Oy Vey! I’m Gay!” and became a cause célèbre on talk radio. Pierce, looking much of the day like a man haunted, insisted that was consensual, unlike the 2004 dog-food incident.
“This was wrong,” said Pierce, as he described how colleagues watched him eat the spaghetti. “And if four black men did it to a white man, I would stand up for the white fireman and say it’s wrong.”
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