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What Really Happened at Fire Station 5? 

A dog-food prank gone bad wrecks careers and morale as Tennie Pierce demands millions

Wednesday, Mar 14 2007
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Page 8 of 9

If the council members thought they could quietly make a record settlement in the case, they were wrong. The controversy was fanned in November by KFI AM 640 radio-show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, who posted photographs of Pierce engaged in hazing and made much of the fact that Pierce loved being called the Big Dog.

For the first time, a controversial and politically sensitive photo emerged showing Pierce smiling next to a firefighter wearing a white sheet with “Oy Vey! I’m Gay” scrawled across it. It created a furor among firefighters, who called the radio show to criticize Pierce’s hypocrisy, and set off finger-pointing among the city’s bureaucrats.

Geuss downplayed those leaked photos of Pierce, saying, “While these photos are disturbing, the office has to look at and decide when we litigate.” Even if Pierce’s mockery of Jews and gays was discriminatory, Geuss says, Harrison could still win in court by showing “retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress” — firefighters leaking photos of Pierce’s hazing, and others barking at him. (In fact, Harrison two months ago amended Pierce’s original lawsuit to focus on alleged retaliation against Pierce — the leaking of photos chief among her complaints.)

click to flip through (4) Asian-American firefighter Kelly Niles: One of the eyewitnesses Pierce alleged were ''white''
  • Asian-American firefighter Kelly Niles: One of the eyewitnesses Pierce alleged were ''white''
     
 

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Some City Council members insisted they knew nothing of the photos before they emerged on KFI. Councilman Jack Weiss has insisted he was unaware of Pierce engaging in pranks before he voted on the $2.7 million settlement late last year. But Councilman Parks admitted to the Weekly that he knew about the photos and chose not to look: “I didn’t think it was necessary to see the photos . . . You can go through all of [the evidence] and find something to offend someone.”

As late as November, Zine was still claiming that for a long time, “Nobody knew about the photos except for the city attorney. They wanted to settle the case, so they slanted the discussion to settle the case. There was no permanent injury. I said, ‘I am not going to support it.’ It was their opinion, based on limited documents and no photographs. The photographs then surfaced. I got ballistic at this point.”

The City Attorney’s Office lashed back, saying the council had the photos earlier, but none of the 15 council members would look at them. City Attorney spokesperson Nick Velasquez says, “Zine tried to backtrack. All of these discussions are recorded. It was their call to not look at the photos.”

Embarrassed by KFI’s virtual campaign, the City Council finally looked at the photos. Zine and Councilman Bill Rosendahl asked the council to reconsider the settlement, but in a close vote, the council reaffirmed the ?$2.7 million.

The boondoggle prompted Mayor Villaraigosa to veto the settlement — his first-ever veto of the City Council. Despite an emotional public plea by Pierce on November 28, and a public show of support for Pierce from big-name black leaders, the council voted to uphold the mayor’s veto.

Said Pierce to a riveted crowd in council chambers that day: “Those pictures were done in love . . . After it was over, everyone would hug the person. What they did to me was wrong because it was something I didn’t know . . . I took great offense when nine white members sat in the kitchen, watched me eat it.”

Local media, including the Los Angeles Daily News and the Los Angeles Times, snatched up Pierce’s false claim about the “nine white members” without checking, and sympathy for Pierce escalated among some black activist groups and local media, which made Pierce out to be a victim of epic proportion. The Times even published, on December 7, an editorial written by Genie Harrison titled “Much more than dog food,” in which Harrison argued that the case involved a massive cover-up of the lackadaisical response among Fire Department supervisors to Pierce’s allegations, including forged documents.

Some legal experts say that Delgadillo just got scared. Employee-rights attorney Paterson says, “If you have a plaintiff’s attorney who knows how to pitch to a jury and is a real F. Lee Bailey or Gerry Spence, that guy will get more money . . . Just to be able to sit at a table and agree to get the city attorney to pay $2.7 million, [Harrison] obviously knows how to negotiate.”

If not for “a couple of guys at a radio station and a couple of guys sending in photos,” Paterson says, Harrison “would have taken 50 percent of that and be spending it now.”

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