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Gravy Train

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.”

Pierce’s wife wept as she told the council how the incident affected her husband. “He’s lost his dignity. He’s lost his love for his fellow firefighters,” she said.

The council — a group known for eating and talking among themselves during public testimony — couldn’t turn away. For a brief moment, they seemed to leave aside the motives that normally factor into any controversial vote: the next election, their next office, their next feud with Delgadillo. Like the city’s legal team, several council members concluded that Pierce and his family could quite possibly kick the city’s — and taxpayers’ — asses in front of a jury. “We should all be very frightened about what will happen in the event that this goes to a court of law,” said Councilman Herb Wesson after hearing the testimony.

Then things got back to normal, sort of. Councilman Greig Smith refused to buy Pierce’s story, saying the act wasn’t racism but rather pranksterism. Councilman Dennis Zine pointed out that the day was really about, well, Dennis Zine. Having pushed the mayor for a veto of the huge settlement, Zine boasted that he had exposed the department’s history of hazing and its “problems with disrespect for other people.”

Yet even as they promised to protect the city’s pocketbook, Zine and Smith loudly argued that the dog-food debacle was an awful, egregious act — comments that will easily strengthen Pierce’s case before a jury. Jurors might be equally confused by Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who favored the veto yet ran out and gave Pierce a bear hug after his testimony.

Villaraigosa offered his own mixed signals. Council members returned from Thanksgiving vacation to find an e-mail from Deputy Mayor Kevin Acebo explaining that the mayor wants a new review of the case. But “reconsideration [of the payout] does not mean rejection of the settlement,” he said.

Uh, okay. But if there’s nothing wrong with the settlement, why reconsider it? The problem is, Villaraigosa’s camp is on a tightrope, trying to win against the council — but not too big. By casting a veto, Villaraigosa looked like a strong mayor who showed that the council doesn’t mind the store. That gambit won him an angry letter from Jesse Jackson and a protest from the local chapter of the NAACP. If the Pierce settlement is abandoned, things could get out of hand — an ugly trial, a potentially larger jury award and even more blowback from voter-rich black L.A. To get back in the NAACP’s good graces, Villaraigosa might even fire Bamattre, whose department has become a lawsuit incubator.

But by then, the Pierce affair will have screwed the city’s political leaders no matter what they do. Embracing the $2.7 million settlement will be viewed as financially foolish in much of the city, becoming fodder for weeks of venting on talk radio. Rejecting it will infuriate the city’s African-American leadership, who sidled up to Villaraigosa after Hahn removed Bernard Parks as police chief.

African-American leaders might not forget if Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who’s eyeing the powerful city controller’s job, upholds the veto. Or if Councilman Jack Weiss, a likely candidate for city attorney, sticks with his good friend the mayor. And by now, nearly everyone at City Hall may have second thoughts the next time they’re tempted to take a look inside the walls, at the messy plumbing within.


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