By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Los Angeles Fire Department engineer Clinton Arrigoni was getting ready for bed at the old Fire Station 5 in Westchester when he was cornered by four of his fellow crew members, including 49-year-old veteran African-American firefighter Tennie Pierce. Arrigoni wasn’t surprised. He was soon being promoted to captain, and per tradition, he was a tempting target for a “chairing.”
The four firefighters gave him two choices: walk to the hose tower, located behind the station, or be carried. Arrigoni walked. Once there, his hands were tied to a chair with duct tape, then he was showered for 10 minutes with mustard, ketchup, salad dressing and barbecue sauce. “[Arrigoni] is pretty easygoing,” recalls Glen Phillips, an engineer working at Station 5 that October 12, 2004. “He said, ‘Those sons of bitches.’ ”
Like many other firefighters who ignore the longtime Fire Department ban on horseplay, Pierce was often front and center in the escapades, prominent in photographs of the pranks. He enjoyed the culture and camaraderie, including the widely observed practice of keeping all pranks secret from the brass, who could hurt a guy’s career. Pierce loved to hold court in Station 5’s kitchen, regaling co-workers with tales of pranks — known as “turds” — tracing back nearly 20 years.
He was a prominent “turdster,” no goody two-shoes when it came to racial, ethnic or sexual-orientation barbs or hazing, on one occasion grinning wildly at a firefighter who had been wrapped in a bed sheet on which the hazers had scrawled, “Oy Vey! I’m Gay!”
He honed his skill at “bucketing” — a not entirely safe practice in which a prankster drenches an unsuspecting co-worker with water from the roof of the fire station. “He is there for the fun,” says retired firefighter Charles Palacios, who worked with Pierce at Station 61. “He is a big ham.”
Pierce was boisterous and well liked, and, at a towering and broad-shouldered 6 feet 5 inches and 280 pounds, he also excelled in sports like volleyball, where his spiking prowess was legendary. One colleague from Station 61, where Pierce worked from 1991 to 2003, says, “He was always the big horse at the trough: ‘If you serve me, I will spike the ball back, because I am a Big Dog.’ ”
Two days after Pierce and the others showered engineer Arrigoni with ketchup — an incident never before reported publicly — the Station 5 crew decided to grab an early-morning volleyball game at nearby Dockweiler State Beach. Pierce began loudly bragging about being the “Big Dog,” his longtime nickname, and avidly taunting a fellow crew member, Latino paramedic George Arevalo — at 5 feet 7 inches nearly a foot shorter than Pierce. One player, firefighter Glen Phillips, tells the L.A. Weekly Pierce was shouting, “I take craps bigger than you!” at the much smaller Arevalo.
Pierce’s laughter and gross taunts seemed like no big deal — at the time. But within hours, Arevalo, a quiet type who was studying to become a helicopter pilot, would feed dog food to Tennie Pierce in the Station 5 kitchen — a prank that would hurt the careers of two captains, open taxpayers to a $2.7 million settlement pushed by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, prompt Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to enact his first veto of the Los Angeles City Council, force the demotion of a deputy chief and the stunning resignation of admired Fire Chief William Bamattre — and send the morale of the department plummeting.
In a three-month investigation, the Weekly has learned that the crew present when Pierce ate dog food was not “nine white members,” as Pierce claimed in an emotional plea to a packed City Council chamber on November 28; that a taunting incident cited by Pierce as proof of harassment and retaliation was actually led by a black firefighter; that leaders of a respected black firefighters’ organization refuse to call what happened to Pierce race-based; and that Pierce called it “water under the bridge” — before hiring an attorney.
If he chooses, Pierce can retire in April with early-retirement pension pay for 20 years of service. The trial, set for September, could cost taxpayers millions even if the city wins — and some firefighters are asking why.
Latino fire captain Brian Allen, who worked alongside Pierce at Station 61 in the Miracle Mile area for many years, says, “I have been in the locker room for 26 years, and I have never once heard someone discriminating against Mexicans. It drives me bananas to hear the talk about racial discrimination. Are there jokes? Yes. Have I witnessed real discrimination? Absolutely not. Now, here we are with this thing to drag the whole department down. It was a ‘turd’ that went a little too far. And someone got ahold of it and pushed it.”
What really happened at Fire Station 5? The instigator of the dog-food prank, George Arevalo, won’t talk, and his attorney, John Yslas, has ducked interviews. Some firefighters interviewed by the Weekly believe Arevalo felt slighted by Pierce, hearing his manhood challenged in a particularly offensive way — being compared during the volleyball game to the larger man’s feces.
Glen Phillips recalls that during the volleyball game — which Arevalo’s side lost — Pierce told Arevalo, “He had trophies bigger than him. He would tease George about his size: ‘I take craps bigger than you.’ That might have got George a little upset.”
Dramatically different in personality and physical stature from Pierce, the much younger Arevalo, 24, regularly studied. He didn’t seem upset, witnesses tell the Weekly. But Arevalo may have wanted to one-up Pierce, who was always an eager “turdster,” or prankster.
A few hours later, Arevalo went to Ralphs grocery store with Captain John Tohill and two other firefighters. It was Arevalo’s turn to cook, and he had planned spaghetti and meat sauce. Attorney Gregory W. Smith, representing Tohill, who along with Captain Chris Burton is suing the city for reverse discrimination for punishment over the incident, says Tohill bought the dog food with the idea of placing the can on Pierce’s plate as a lighthearted trophy for recent “Big Dog” volleyball and handball victories.
The dinner bell rang around 6 p.m., almost 10 hours after Pierce had taunted Arevalo. After Pierce’s highly charged appearance with his lawyer, Genie Harrison, before the Los Angeles City Council in November, incorrect media stories nationwide repeated Pierce’s blatantly false description of the firefighters gathered at or near the community table that night as “nine white members.” In fact, the eyewitnesses, who actually numbered eight, were a racial and ethnic mix: Two are Latinos — George Arevalo and Mike Perea — and Kelly Niles is Asian-American. Glen Phillips and Mike Pagliuso are white, as are captains Tohill and Burton, and rookie David Flynn.
Station 5’s racial diversity was also reflected in the shift’s workers not present in the kitchen: Battalion Chief Steve Coleman, staff assistant Oscar Scott and paramedic Mark Flot are black; engineer Mike Telles — one of Pierce’s friends — is Latino; paramedic Ron Lingo is white.
Pierce arrived about 15 minutes late for dinner. Most of the men had eaten, and some were standing or sitting in the kitchen. According to eyewitnesses interviewed by the Weekly — but never interviewed by Fire Department brass, these eyewitnesses say, after Pierce’s public denunciation of his crew members — he picked up a plate of food that was waiting on the stove, prepared for him by Arevalo, and took a big bite.
After a second bite, according to Pierce’s lawsuit, a few of the men knew something was afoot and started laughing. Eyewitnesses say others were in the dark and tried to catch up with the joke. Pierce demanded to know what was in the food. Men kept chuckling, and Pierce stormed out.
To the crew, it was another absurd and over-the-top station prank without racial overtones. Both captains, Tohill and Burton, say they were unaware of Arevalo’s plan, and firefighter Phillips says he was watching TV when he was surprised by an eruption of laughter. But Pierce and his lawyer, Harrison, insist the incident was a conspiracy in which his crew set him up for a group humiliation.
According to Niles, because Pierce was so clearly pissed off, Captain Burton told instigator Arevalo to go apologize. Niles and Pagliuso went along. Niles says Arevalo admitted to Pierce he had put the dog food in his spaghetti, and Pierce accepted his apology and called it “water under the bridge.”
“He was like, ‘I know, man — it was a prank,’ ” Niles, the Asian-American firefighter, told the Weekly. “ ‘I know you guys were playing around.’ ”
Captains Tohill and Burton also spoke to Pierce, and at 8 p.m. summoned the rest of the crew to a meeting to explain that Pierce had calmed down. In their reverse-discrimination lawsuit, the two captains say Pierce “emphatically requested that it [the incident] be kept quiet.”
Yet even then, there were glimmers of the political turmoil to come. Niles recalls an out-of-place comment made to him by Pierce that night, warning Niles that black paramedic Mark Flot, who was not around for dinner, was particularly upset over the dog-food prank. Flot didn’t return calls from the Weekly, but Niles says Pierce told him, “In a couple of months, if [this incident] comes out, I didn’t say anything.”
Pierce’s warning was unusual. The departmentwide practice among firefighters, also common in other cities, is never to rat out colleagues over hazing, pranks and minor misdeeds. Indeed, as leaked photos of Pierce later showed, Pierce himself had been protected from discipline for the often-outrageous pranks in which he played an enthusiastic role, including one in which he appears to be handling a firefighter’s exposed private parts.
Just two weeks after the dog-food prank, Pierce sprained his back when he slipped on some stairs at LAX during a call. He took a paid, two-and-a-half-month injury leave — the first of a lengthy series of paid sick leaves and paid stress leaves. According to information gathered from his co-workers, his lawsuit and city documents, by the time Pierce appeared before the City Council, he had been paid the equivalent of a full-time salary for roughly two years — yet worked as a firefighter less than 40 days.
While on his first leave from work, Pierce took a firefighter class at Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center and stopped in to see Battalion Chief Brian Cummings, who is black — and at that point turned in his fellow crew members, telling Cummings about the dog-food caper. Cummings contacted Battalion Chief Coleman, a respected black supervisor at Station 5, who wasn’t pleased to learn of the incident from another chief rather than from his own captains.
Pierce was not at that point pushing the idea of racial harassment. Chief Cummings told the Weekly he couldn’t recall whether Pierce saw the prank as racially motivated, remembering it more as a case of hurt feelings: “It wasn’t something I dwelled on,” says Cummings. “It was around the holidays, and his shift was working Thanksgiving, and he couldn’t face the idea of bringing his family down to the fire station.” It was a personnel complaint that, Cummings says, “didn’t leave a lasting impression on me.”
According to media reports, when confronted by Coleman, Arevalo admitted that he put the dog food in Pierce’s spaghetti. Coleman determined that Captain Burton had known what Arevalo was planning, although the captain denies it. As word swept Station 5 that Pierce had turned in members of his crew, it never occurred to the firefighters that a lawsuit might be on the way, much less the costliest settlement offer ever made involving the Fire Department. On December 1, six weeks after the prank, Arevalo and the two captains were transferred as punishment for breaking anti-hazing rules. As the ranking captain, Burton was transferred far from his home, a punishment commonly known as “freeway therapy.”
Mike Telles, Pierce’s longtime friend, says of the crew, “They feel betrayed by him because he participated in all these things, and when it happened to him, he got upset about it. They didn’t do it maliciously. There was no hidden agenda.”
Says Phillips, who fought fires alongside Pierce for a year: “It was very disappointing. People have called me cracker and grand wizard. Are they being mean? No, it is a joke.” Pierce’s decision to take his complaint through official channels, he says, “didn’t seem like Pierce at all. It is a bunch of garbage. There is no merit to that. I figured that he probably talked to a lawyer.”
Long before the brouhaha at Station 5, Tennie Pierce had sunk deep roots in the department. Assigned to Station 61 along the Miracle Mile for 13 years, he grew close to Mike Telles. The two men were so close that Telles’ wife brought meals to Pierce’s wife, Brenda, when Brenda was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 — an illness she survived. And when Telles eventually wanted to transfer to a busier station — breaking the old bonds at Station 61 — Pierce stuck up for him when loyalty-bound firefighters said Telles was breaking up a close unit for personal needs.
The men were tight at racially mixed Station 61, and Pierce vacationed in Cabo San Lucas with his buddies and their wives in 1992. He became known departmentwide, working at several stations with hundreds of firefighters, and was just a few years shy of his 20th year on the job when he transferred to Station 5 in October of 2003, becoming senior firefighter on the “C” crew.
His 13-person crew, whose members ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s, worked 10 24-hour days per month — a typical workload. With time on their hands when calls didn’t come in, the crew exercised, played sports, studied, cooked, completed chores and shared sleeping quarters.
On a professional level, Pierce was a competent firefighter. He played around with younger firefighters who were known as “boots,” and in typical Pierce fashion put his own twist on it, calling them “boot asses” and ordering them to perform menial tasks — when the brass weren’t looking. Phillips recalls, “He didn’t help out on a lot of stuff, but he is a fun guy to be around. Did he use his time to bully the younger firemen? Yeah . . . [He made] them do stuff around the station, because he has time on the job . . . I think it bothered some.”
Crews at stations 61 and 5, where Pierce spent most of his years, followed the internal code — sticking up for each other and never ratting out firefighters who broke what the rank and file saw as minor rules, like shirking small duties, bossing younger firefighters, or committing pranks and hazings.
Telles says Pierce adhered to the old Fire Department adage that “If you can’t catch, then don’t pitch.” In other words, if you can’t take a prank, don’t pull a prank.
Jokes or pranks about a firefighter’s ethnicity were common, and fair game as long as they weren’t considered racially motivated. Charles Palacios, a Latino firefighter, recalls that Pierce “would call me a beaner and I would call him a mayate. We all got along great. We had a bunch of great guys, and nobody got into any fight or mad.”
Palacios says the crew at Station 61 was “Mexicans, Japanese, blacks, whites — and nobody ever acted racially toward anybody . . . We had the type of crew that you could sit around and joke with everyone and nobody took offense to it . . . With [Tennie], he has never done or said anything racist. He might have joked about it.”
Gallows humor was rife — and probably impossible to stamp out regardless of political pressure from outside — among men and women whose own deaths were a real risk, and who had to deal with horribly burned victims and other tragedies.
“We push the envelope. We do it at the scene of emergencies, and we do it off duty,” says Captain Brian Allen, who, despite his name, is Mexican-American and worked with Pierce at Station 61. “We do a lot of extreme physical activities, and at work you can’t try to shut that stuff off. We can’t be timid. You don’t want a busload of accountants at a fire scene.”
As Allen notes, “When average normal people are confronted with a fire, they are running away. We are running toward it.”
Banned in the 1940s, hazing has persisted, and even as recently as the ’70s, black firefighters were singled out. After the stations were integrated in 1955, black firefighters weren’t allowed to talk to whites at work, or eat at the same time as whites. One station sported a kitchen-door sign reading: “White adults.” Black firefighters were usually assigned the bed next to the locker room or toilet, and in one case, firefighters put human feces on the pillow of a black firefighter.
The federal government intervened in 1974, and the city agreed to a federal consent decree — which required that half of all new recruits be black, Latino or Asian. The decree was lifted in 2001.
Today the 3,600-member department is one of the nation’s most diverse large urban forces: 53 percent white, 29 percent Latino, 12 percent black and 5 percent Asian — slightly ahead of San Francisco’s, at 55 percent white, and far more diverse than Houston’s, at 63 percent white, Chicago’s, at 69 percent white, or the least diverse, New York’s, at about 90 percent white.
While firefighters defy efforts to end hazing, they have their own internal unwritten rule: Don’t mess with a co-worker’s food, family or equipment. But they don’t always obey even that rule. Firefighters have eaten green napkins, served in salad like lettuce, and been tricked into downing bottles of Tabasco. One firefighter at Station 14 in South Los Angeles in the late 1970s made a lemon meringue pie out of sawdust and shaving cream, using empty Marie Callender’s boxes and tins for realism.
Says Captain Larry Schneider of Station 50 in Atwater Village, that prankster “spent two hours making the pies out of sawdust [for the flaky crust] and shaving cream, and put it in the fridge. Sucker after sucker would go there and grab a bowl of lemon meringue pie. It was beautiful. Once they took a bite, they would put it back in the fridge and wait for the next sucker.”
More recently, John Patchett, a white colleague of Pierce’s at Station 5, was tricked into eating cat food after he made a derogatory comment about a colleague’s cat. It wasn’t done entirely in fun. The crack about his colleague’s beloved pet “offended him,” Patchett recalls. “When I had tuna salad that night, I had a bit different tuna salad than everybody else.”
Dog food has also been slipped into firefighters’ food before. In the early 1970s, white firefighter Francis Brown was tricked into eating a dog-food meat loaf after he repeatedly hogged the leftovers — a no-no behavior known as “maggot messing.”
“He was halfway through [his meat loaf] when the guys started barking,” says Schneider. “He found the [dog food] cans on the window. He then sat back down and finished eating the whole meat loaf.”
A white captain, Doug Close, got tricked into eating dog food in the 1980s after he refused to chip in for daily meals, then got caught chowing down. “For the rest of the man’s career, they would buy a can of dog food and clean it out and would put all his pencils and pens in it,” says Schneider. “He would just shrug it off. It went on for 10 years . . . Most firemen know that the worst thing you can do is complain.”
Allen, who believes the horror expressed by city officials over hazing is a crock, says that until October of 2004, Pierce had been a participant in full-on hazing and never ratting out a fellow firefighter.
“My first reaction?” says Allen, about hearing of Pierce’s lawsuit. “Tennie Pierce is involved in this? There is no way ‘T’ would push it. He wouldn’t say it’s race. He is a big “turdster” himself, and he would be the last guy. We all thought the same way. He knows it isn’t racist.”
Yet just before Thanksgiving of 2004, a little over a month after he ate dog food, Pierce told Station 5 Chief Coleman he wanted disciplinary actions against Burton, Tohill and Arevalo, the slight Latino whom he’d compared to the size of his craps. He asked to be transferred away from Station 5 — and to see a psychiatrist.
He contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reported the incident to the city’s Office of Discrimination Complaint Resolution and hired an attorney, later switching to Genie Harrison. After the dog-food prank, Pierce rarely worked again — only about 40 days over the next two years.
Employment attorney Lee T. Paterson, an author of a book on employee and labor law who is not involved in the case, says Pierce’s behavior fits a classic approach for building a case in court. Paterson says, “The more the person is injured or damaged, the more money you will make: Pierce gets sick from dog food, takes Tums, and he is back to his normal self and comes back to work. What is that worth? Not much. But if he is sick? His wife testifies he hasn’t had sex? He can’t go back to work? There is an advantage for the attorney and the plaintiff to have a lot of damage or at least to talk about a lot of damage. The second stop is the plaintiff’s lawyer’s office, the next stop is a psychiatrist.”
(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.
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.
Geuss conceded to the Weekly that he feared explaining the Pierce case to a politically liberal “downtown” jury. Says Geuss: “These cases represent a can of worms when you go in front of a jury — especially a downtown jury . . . We have learned in the past, and even when the plaintiff has engaged in this behavior, they [jurors] won’t let the [LAPD or LAFD] off the hook.”
Delgadillo also took the case to a city-appointed mediator — a retired judge and Orthodox Jew, who, after reviewing the dog-food prank, said he related to Pierce because he was once disgusted after unwittingly eating a dish that included pork.
Delgadillo apparently saw no conflict in taking a food-prank case before mediator Joel Grossman, whose own religious customs include strict eating rules. “His food proclivities were unknown” to the city, says Geuss. Grossman told the city he didn’t think the photos of Pierce engaged in pranks were compelling enough to prevent a jury from awarding him millions.
The City Council then rubber-stamped the record-high settlement offer — in record time, voting 11-1, with only Councilman Dennis Zine opposed. Explaining to the Weekly why the council acted so fast, Councilman Bernard Parks made it sound like a routine matter: “Normally it is a very short explanation, the basic facts of the case, and the majority of these are settled.” But Zine argued that Pierce was “just looking for gravy off the taxpayers.”
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.)
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.”
In January, the city hired the law ?firm of Jones, Day to represent ?the city and the Fire Department in court. Jones, Day couldn’t be reached for comment. Meanwhile, the mayor has ordered all city agencies to develop strict risk-management strategies that would require managers to track all claims and to spell out steps to reduce future liabilities.
Some critics say that harassment claims against city departments have been on the rise since Schifando v. City of Los Angeles, a California Supreme Court ruling that allows employees to sidestep municipal grievance rules and sue the city for employment discrimination. The downside is that it has also made it a lot easier for clever and aggressive attorneys to make a buck.
“There are five times as many lawyers identifying themselves as employment-rights lawyers now than there were 10 years ago, and that probably contributes to the rise in claims,” says Jeffrey Winikow, an employee-rights attorney.
With pressure from the City Council and black leaders, Fire Chief William Bamattre resigned last December for failing to control hazing, ending a career in which he oversaw a dramatic increase in funding and staffing for the department. During his tenure, 20 new fire stations were built, he started a wellness program to keep firefighters in shape, upgraded equipment, expanded fire-prevention programs, added a paramedic to every fire-engine crew — and helped make the LAFD one of the most diverse big-city forces in the nation.
Echoing the thoughts of many rank and file, firefighter John Patchett says, “I think it is terrible. He was a fine, fine man. If this was truly a racial incident and involved someone who was harassed and humiliated, then maybe it was something the chief deserved, but it wasn’t that way. It was a prank.”