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
(Harrison refused to talk to the Weekly and said Pierce would not agree to an interview, angrily accusing the paper of having wrongly described photographs as showing Pierce’s hands on the exposed crotch of a strapped-down hazing participant and forcing hose water in the face of another strapped-down participant.)
It is a matter of some note that despite Harrison’s outreach to the president of the Stentorians, an association of African-American firefighters, that group’s leader has refused to depict the dog-food hazing as racist.
President Armando Hogan recalls that he learned of the debacle from a member, and in turn contacted Pierce, who wasn’t a member at the time. “We reached out to Pierce when it first happened,” says Hogan, who is black. “Someone who worked in that battalion called me up, and I got in contact with Pierce. No members should be subjected to any inhumane treatment. We don’t want it to happen. We wanted him to know we were going to be a support system. What we don’t support is anybody’s behavior that is disrespectful in the work force.”
But after delving into it, Hogan tells the Weekly, “I can’t say he was fed dog food because he is black.”
Hogan says that in 24 years with the department, “I can honestly say no” when it comes to suffering discrimination himself. “We are like family,” he says. “We have that camaraderie and bond. Everyone has their own idiosyncrasies. But everyone has professionalism when it comes to work. All of the differences are dropped.”
A place of camaraderie, however, is not the depiction Paterson and other legal experts say Harrison wants to conjure up for the City Council, the public — or, most importantly, a future jury.
“You got to give Harrison credit,” says Paterson. “Someone in the City Attorney’s Office got scared . . . If this firefighter used to go into burning buildings and was horribly damaged by two bites of dog food, I can see settling the case for $50,000 or $20,000; $2.7 million is a complete capitulation.”
Harrison’s strategy appears to play off City Controller Laura Chick’s 2006 audit of the Fire Department, which concluded that racial harassment, discrimination and retaliation are widespread, as well as upon Bamattre’s admission that those issues still need work.
Hogan says Harrison, who was talking to a handful of disgruntled firefighters about station-house malfeasance, approached him because “[the disgruntled firefighters] were considering retaining Genie, and she wanted a historical perspective.” Eventually, Harrison rolled out the Pierce case and lawsuits from Brenda Lee, a black lesbian firefighter, and at least two others. Another client, Alicia Mathis, has laid the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit by filing a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Before the sudden crumbling of the ?Pierce settlement last year, Brenda Lee rejected a staggering $2.5 million offer from City Attorney Delgadillo — despite her own conduct, which included a complaint that she allegedly slapped a firefighter in the face after a brushfire.
Delgadillo’s eagerness to award huge settlements to Pierce and Lee was in stark contrast to previous Fire Department settlements shelled out by the city. In 10 settlements involving workplace harassment since 2004, firefighters received $3.6 million — in total, not apiece.
One problem with Pierce’s claims is that he cites key racial incidents in the Fire Department that, upon closer examination, do not appear to be race-based. For example, Pierce, in his lawsuit, cites an incident in 2003 known as Ratgate, in which a black firefighter — identified in the media as Gary Alexander — found a dead rat in his locker.
But the rat was placed in Alexander’s locker not over race, but because he broke the unwritten rule when he turned in another firefighter to his supervisors — in this case, a crew member who misrepresented an injury he had sustained during hazing as a routine workplace injury.
Another firefighter, a Latino who placed the rat in Alexander’s locker, was suspended and transferred in 2003. Pierce’s lawsuit doesn’t mention the fact that Alexander, the victim of Ratgate and now a captain, didn’t consider the rat incident racially motivated. Alexander tells the Weekly that he was so angry about finding the rat he nearly became violent — but race had nothing to do with it.
Says Alexander: “I didn’t say it was a racial incident at the time. I wasn’t thinking it that way. Him being a racist never came up.” Alexander goes further, calling the dog-food trick on Pierce probably nothing more than “a prank that went bad . . . There are some pranks that make you feel good, but after a while it is too much. Someone is going to get the crap knocked out of them.”
When he returned to work in January of 2005, now transferred to Station 63, Pierce worked a few days, took another leave until March, worked one day, then took a seven-month anxiety-related leave until October. Documents obtained by the Weekly show that a psychiatrist on April 4 diagnosed Pierce with “disabling anxiety disorder.” Eight days later, he filed a claim saying his “protected right to be free from racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation was violated” and complaining of depression, recurring headaches and stomachaches.
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