CALIFORNIA

L.A. County firefighter union strikes back at scrutiny of family ties

As scrutiny of family connections of L.A. County firefighters has grown, union leaders have struck back

Union representatives for the Los Angeles County Fire Department's rank and file had a pointed response to reports of nepotism in the agency's hiring practices: They announced their sponsorship of a "family day."

Staged for relatives of county firefighters and for others with ties to the department, the event gave attendees a special opportunity to take the physical-ability test needed to apply for a job on the force.

The gathering demonstrated how fiercely Local 1014 of the International Assn. of Fire Fighters has defended the department's hiring of large numbers of family members.

The matter hits especially close to home at the union's El Monte headquarters. At least four of Local 1014's 10 officers are related to someone now or previously employed as a county firefighter, according to an analysis of birth, marriage and other records. That's three times the known percentage of relatives in the department as a whole.

As scrutiny of such family connections has grown, Local 1014's leaders have struck back. In a series of often-heated posts on the union's website, they have lashed out at a county inquiry into nepotism and cheating, beaten up on the fire chief and vowed to use their clout to influence any reform efforts.

It began with a Times investigation last fall that found that at least 13% of county firefighters were related to current or former members of the department. The newspaper also reported that department insiders got their hands on confidential job-interview material that they could have easily shared with relatives applying for firefighter openings.

On the Local 1014 website, the union said it took "great offense" to The Times' reporting, labeling it "below the belt shots at our department and our members."

Several union officers either declined interview requests or did not respond to them. "We're not going to give you any comment," Local 1014 President Dave Gillotte said. "It's not in anybody's interest to do so."

The firefighter jobs are civil service positions highly coveted for their six-figure salaries and generous benefits. Hiring is supposed to be solely on merit, and nearly 95% of applicants are rejected, including candidates who have already passed the physical test.

Employment interviews and written exams do not assess applicants for specific firefighter skills they could have learned from a relative, such as deploying ladders or providing emergency medical assistance. Those are taught in the department's training academy.

The Times investigation found that at least 7% of county firefighters on the payroll since 2012 were the sons of current or former employees of the department. They accounted for nearly five times the number of women in the station houses, who made up just 1.4% of the 2,750-firefighter agency.

Statistical experts consulted by The Times said the percentage of sons and other relatives on the job strongly indicated that nepotism was at play.

In February, to the union's ire, the county Auditor-Controller Department issued a report that largely confirmed The Times' findings and detailed more evidence of cheating. The report said firefighters often had memory failure when investigators for the auditor's office questioned them about obtaining testing material used in hiring.

In one instance, auditors said, a captain who emailed job interview questions to another captain stepped out of the session with investigators to "confer privately with his union representative, after which he repeatedly stated that he did not recall the circumstances under which he came to be in possession of" the material.

Local 1014 said in a Web post that it was "very adverse" to the auditor's report and accused the investigators of "badgering and trying to intimidate" union members.

The union advised the members not to speak to investigators without a Local 1014 representative present, denouncing "this matter that clearly seeks to harm firefighters more than deal with any allegations of improprieties."

Robert Campbell, the acting assistant auditor-controller who oversees the office's investigations unit, disputed Local 1014's characterization of the inquiry. "I see no evidence that anyone was mistreated," he said. "Our only interest is in determining what the facts are."

The office is separately investigating why the Fire Department ignored allegations of nepotism and cheating that a veteran captain, Perry Vermillion, made to high-ranking officials in a 2012 case before the Civil Service Commission. Among Vermillion's accusations was that his Local 1014 representative, Capt. Dave Morse, instructed him to keep quiet because Morse's son would be in an upcoming academy class for new recruits. The son was later hired.

In an email to The Times, Morse denied making the statement to Vermillion, who retired last year and declined to comment. Morse has a nephew on the job as well, according to department documents released to The Times under the state's public records law.

Fire Chief Daryl Osby asked for the investigations by the auditor's office. In a Web post, Local 1014 blistered him for publicly saying last month that employees implicated in the probe would be fired or otherwise punished. The board contended that Osby's actions were designed "to protect those in charge of the very system that gives rise to the allegations" of wrongdoing and called for an investigation of him and his top aides.

The messages marked a sharp change in tone for the union, which had welcomed the chief to the family day get-together at a firefighter testing center in Orange.

Osby had no comment about the union, a department spokesman said.

Coloring Local 1014's campaign is the suggestion that children of firefighters make ideal job candidates. These sons and daughter members, the union website said, "are really the recipients of a lifetime of mentoring from a father or in fact mother. ...

"While everyone would like to see a good, fair recruitment and testing and hiring process and system, it is not uncommon to have children and relatives of those serving compete and earn the right to serve also."

Meanwhile, early in the push for reforms, Local 1014 claimed much credit for the Board of Supervisors' failure to support a proposal late last year to strip the department of hiring authority and turn it over to the county personnel office. Instead, the board established a "strike team" of various county agencies — and the union — to temporarily monitor hiring.

However, the strike team has since been disbanded, and Osby has rolled out an overhauled hiring regimen that appears to have minimized Local 1014's participation.

The union said in a post that the "prime candidate" for administering a new written test for job applicants should be the California Fire Fighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee, a partnership between the state fire marshal and labor. Local 1014 noted that Gillotte "has been very active" in the Sacramento-based organization.

But committee spokesman Carroll Wills said Local 1014 officers would not be involved in developing the group's exam. And the department last month used a new written test from an outside vendor to screen more than 4,500 firefighter applicants.

Battalion Chief Anderson Mackey, the department spokesman, said in an email that the union and the apprenticeship committee "did not have any input in the drafting or the administration" of the test.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

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