By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
In May, Pierce’s first claim of race-based harassment was rejected by the city attorney. That September, he filed three state claims alleging discrimination and harassment against the two captains and Arevalo. He returned to work in early October, almost one year after the dog-food prank, and was assigned to Station 12 in Highland Park. Then, in November, Pierce filed his main lawsuit against the city, alleging racial harassment and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and in December took one final leave from work — never to return.
About three months later, in March of 2006, he launched a new phase of his legal complaints, now focusing on firefighters — some of whom he didn’t know — who kept slamming him for filing the dog-food lawsuit. In this new twist, Pierce alleged in a state claim, he was subjected to slurs and derogatory remarks on the job and silent phone hang-ups at home from January to November of 2005. His claim fails to mention that for roughly nine of those 11 allegedly difficult months, Pierce was off work with pay.
In that state claim, he alleges that on October 19 of 2005 at the Frank Hotchkin training center, several firefighters barked at him and asked “how the dog food tasted.”
“Vance Burnes, in particular, was persistent with his harassment of Pierce and even when Pierce was speaking with a captain, Burnes kept barking like a dog and asking how dog food tastes,” his claim alleges. After confronting Burnes, Pierce says, he then found a can of dog food in his truck.
However, again lending some credence to the criticism that Pierce is not a victim of racial harassment, the Weekly has learned that the key firefighter Pierce named for taunting him that day at Hotchkin training center, Vance Burnes, is black. (Burnes refused to talk to the Weekly.)
During her negotiations in the summer of 2006 with City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, Harrison produced a sociology professor who claimed that eating dog food is connected to racism. David Wellman, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, stated that the association of a black man and dog food was linked to slavery. In an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Harrison said Wellman’s views were fundamental to her case. “He and I worked closely for many months developing strategy,” she said.
Some civil rights advocates scoff at Harrison and Wellman’s dog-food-and-slavery argument. “I scratch my head,” says Joe Hicks, the black vice president of Community Advocates Inc., a human-relations organization. “I . . . have been in the trenches a long time around issues of racism. I just have not heard the connection with dog food or black people.”
Well-known retired black civil rights attorney Leo Branton, who was approached by the NAACP to publicly support Pierce but declined, says, “Being fed dog food isn’t a big deal . . . Dog food doesn’t kill anybody, and it doesn’t make you sick. Back in the days of slavery, they didn’t have such a thing as dog food. That is a false statement.”
Why did the City Attorney's Office want to settle, if the leader of the Stentorians did not see a racial motive behind the prank, if barbs to which Pierce has been subjected by firefighters appear to have been prompted not by race but by Pierce ratting on his fellow crew, and if respected black activists deny that dog food is a part of slavery lore?
Asks white firefighter and Pierce co-worker John Patchett, “Why would you grant someone an award of $3 million if you had knowledge of the fact that it wasn’t racially motivated and it wasn’t intentional and the person had a history of performing the same type of pranks?”
Appalled over the hypocrisy they felt Pierce showed, some of his now-former buddies anonymously sent to Fire Department brass photos of the Station 5 hazing of white firefighter Clinton Arrigoni — featuring Pierce and crew gleefully taunting Arrigoni. Fire Department officials reprimanded the crew shown in the photos, then turned the pictures over to Delgadillo. Then, in March of 2006, somebody anonymously sent a new crop of much more controversial Pierce hazing photos to Delgadillo.
Despite hard evidence that Pierce was a key participant in hazings, Delgadillo agreed to a $2.7 million payout to Pierce (attorney Harrison had demanded $3.8 million). Assistant City Attorney Gary Geuss tells the Weekly they based their decision on past racial-bias verdicts. In 2000, John Francois, a black cop, won a huge $5.34 million award. And a jury awarded $4.2 million to Richard Nagatoshi, a police officer who complained of racial bias — even though he had made his own disparaging racial remarks.
But this was a strange argument from the city attorney. Unlike the LAPD, firefighters have “historically not been subjected to these types of cases,” Geuss admits. “The Police Department has been subjected to these claims for a long time” — and it was the police — far more controversial among the public than firefighters — who had not done well in front of juries.
There was another, perhaps more pressing reason: Geuss was worried about the impact of City Controller Chick’s scandalous audit, prompted by Ratgate and the dog-food incident. Chick’s audit found rampant racism, sexual harassment and hazing. But there were doubters as to Chick’s methodology: She was criticized for sending her questions only to minority, woman and probationary firefighters, less than a quarter of whom bothered to respond. The vast majority of firefighters never weighed in with Chick.