Former L.A. Fire Marshal John Vidovich has filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging he was “unlawfully and unceremoniously ousted from his job” in August 2016. Vidovich claims that he was tasked with cleaning up the stubbornly antiquated Fire Protection Bureau and clearing its backlog of overdue inspections — and that he was retaliated against by the firefighters union. But the most intriguing allegation in the lawsuit is that Frank Lima, then-president of firefighters union UFLAC, and Mayor Eric Garcetti made “a quid pro quo exchange.”
Garcetti would help the Fire Department quietly usher Vidovich out the door, according to the lawsuit, and UFLAC would endorse Garcetti and spend up to $350,000 to support his re-election campaign.
The complaint, filed on Monday, states:
In exchange for Mayor Garcetti's agreement to ratify the union's retaliation against [Vidovich] by removing him from his job as fire marshal, the union agreed to endorse the mayor for re-election in March 2017, and further agreed to contribute to his re-election campaign.
When asked for comment, a spokesman for Mayor Garcetti said the office doesn't comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit also names as a defendant the firefighters union, UFLAC, which Vidovich alleges undertook a campaign of retaliation against the former fire marshal after he singled out a number of fire inspectors for malfeasance.
Vidovich was appointed as head of the city's Fire Protection Bureau in September 2014. He said that he found a department in “disarray,” with a backlog of more than 10,000 buildings that were overdue for inspection. According to the suit:
Even more troubling, [Vidovich] discovered certain members were committing illegal acts, including falsifying inspection records and not maintaining life safety system records, and were otherwise putting the public at risk.
Specifically, [Vidovich] discovered that certain inspectors were: (1) extorting money from development contractors by demanding unnecessary overtime for life safety inspections in order to “sign off” on buildings; (2) gouging the film industry with safety officer overtime in violation of department policy; (3) misrepresenting department policy for personal gain; and (4) falsifying and/or destroying inspection and time records.
In response, Vidovich instituted “Operation Catch-Up,” an effort to inspect all uninspected buildings. This effort was wildly successful: According to a report given by Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas in May 2016, overdue inspections fell from more than 10,000 to just 33. Vidovich also changed the overtime rules and updated the Fire Protection Bureau's record-keeping system.
All of which, predictably, pissed off the union. Certain officers rankled by the new rules began a word-of-mouth and text-message campaign to resist Vidovich's reforms. As L.A. Weekly first reported last year, that text message read, in part:
Brothers and Sisters of UFLAC, the time has come for us to stand in solidarity in protest against the fire marshal.
Please be sure to do accurate, thorough inspections and write as many notices as you can. Take your time to do your job!!! Do not allow them to rush you through this backlog fiasco. We will only do what we can do … (only as fast as a banana boat)!”
Lima told the L.A. Times that Operation Catch-Up was a “shell game.” It was a public effort to discredit Vidovich, and it worked.
Vidovich alleges that on Aug. 11, he was called into a meeting with three of the mayor's top aides, including his chief of staff, Ana Guerrero, and Fire Chief Terrazas. He was told that he was being reassigned to the Mayor's Office, effective immediately. But, the complaint reads, “There was no such position in the Mayor's Office, and [Vidovich]was being terminated from his position as Fire Marshal … in retaliation for [Vidovich's] reporting of illegal conduct in the Fire Protection Bureau.”
Six days later, Garcetti joined Lima in Las Vegas, where Lima was elected as a vice president of the international firefighters union. Lima would later post, on Instagram, photos of him and the mayor shooting pool (the photos have since been deleted, and Lima's account has since been made private). Five days after that, Vidovich was officially terminated, in what the suit calls “a very public and unprecedented way, by written notice sent out to all LAFD personnel.”
Shortly thereafter, UFLAC endorsed Garcetti for re-election. The union had supported his opponent, Wendy Gruel, in Garcetti's first election.
The promised job in Garcetti's office never materialized, despite the fact that Vidovich was a 35-year veteran of the fire department and had even received three of the mayor's “innovation awards.”
“I’ve never heard of a deputy chief given this type of treatment,” Captain Matthew Gatewood, who heads the Fire Prevention Bureau’s research unit, told us back in September. “What he’s been able to accomplish in 18 months would take another individual an entire career. … As much as I respect my department, I think it is a tremendous loss to pull him out at this time.”