L.A. County fire officials shared test questions used in hiring, audit finds

17 sworn L.A. County fire officials had obtained testing materials and sent them to others, audit finds

An audit probing allegations of cheating in the Los Angeles County Fire Department's hiring process found that high-ranking officials improperly shared job interview questions and answers that were supposed to be confidential.

The audit was launched in response to a Times investigation last year which found that an unusually high number of family members of firefighters were hired by the department and that insiders had access to the interview questions and answers.

The county review determined that 17 sworn department officials, including one battalion chief and 10 captains, had obtained the testing materials and sent them to others, including to non-county email accounts.

In at least one case, a candidate who received copies of interview questions and answers was the son of a fire captain who sent emails to his father requesting clarification on certain questions, the investigation found. That son was hired.

When interviewed by county investigators, the department employees involved "generally asserted that they did not remember why they circulated examination content or know how it might have been used," auditors wrote.

The audit presents a disturbing picture of how the county's Fire Department managed its hiring process, which is meant to select the best candidates using an exacting regimen of testing and interviews.

Copies of written and oral exams were left in "an unsecured box of paperwork that was left unattended in an empty work station" in the Fire Department's exam section. Department staff inadvertently mailed the internal rating standards to some candidates. And the agency was often unable to provide documents showing how it selected candidates for the written exams, as well as background checks and medical examinations.

"As a result, we could not determine if the selections were random or evaluate the integrity or the objectivity of the process," the auditors wrote.

Fire Chief Daryl Osby could not be reached Saturday for comment on the findings.

In a written response to the auditors, he promised to "communicate to all departmental personnel that disseminating examination content is prohibited and any violation may be subject to discipline." He said he would work with county attorneys and human resources officials to develop improved safeguards. The department will also implement a policy on nepotism, he wrote.

The report did not name the employees who disseminated the exam information. But auditors said they will present the chief with a separate, confidential report that identifies people responsible for the breaches so that the chief "may take appropriate corrective and/or disciplinary action."

The Times' investigation, published in October, found that at least 183 sons of current or former firefighters have served in the department since the start of 2012, according to an analysis of payroll, pension, birth, marriage and other records. The known number of sons accounts for nearly 7% of the county's 2,750 firefighters.

When brothers, nephews and other relatives are included, at least 370 firefighters — 13% of the department ranks — are related to someone now or previously on the force.

The county audit said that 15% of the 701 firefighter candidates hired between 2007 and 2014 had family ties to the department.

County auditors cited The Times' investigation, saying the newspaper presented the department with records that showed test questions and answers were being improperly circulated among department employees.

Those records included an email string and an eight-page list that included oral test questions and answers. The tests are used to determine whether and when applicants win a spot in the fire academy, and are supposed to be kept under lock and key.

Two firefighters who lacked authorization to have the eight-page list provided it to the newspaper. One of the firefighters said he hunted down the questions and answers because a co-worker wanted them for a relative.

Auditors conducted a forensic search of 52 million emails in search of instances of test materials being circulated and confirmed that tests administered between 2007 and 2011 were compromised.

They found that "numerous sworn fire personnel, particularly at the rank of fire captain, were disseminating questions and answers" from the tests. They also found "evidence that some candidates may have had access to test preparation assistance (e.g., mock interviews, test preparation guides, etc.) that was not available to the general public."

There is heated competition for county Fire Department jobs, which offer six-figure salaries and generous benefits. Nearly 95% of applicants are turned away.

The dissemination of testing materials to candidates "compromised the integrity of the examination process and provided these candidates with an unfair advantage," the auditors concluded.

It was unclear whether any of the employees cited in the audit have been disciplined.

In one case, a candidate who was later hired sent exam questions to the personal email of a fire captain, who 11 months later forwarded the questions to another captain. Investigators did not find any evidence that either of the captains had relatives in the department.

The candidate "could not explain why he sent the email" to the captain. The captain told investigators he had asked for practice questions "but denied knowing that he received actual oral interview questions." He said he "did not remember why he disseminated the examination questions or know how they were used."

The second captain said he was using the questions to improve a "study guide" for interested candidates, investigators wrote. "However, it does not appear that this study material was available to the general public," said the auditors, who also said the two captains' answers "raise questions about the completeness of their statements."

Even before the audit, some county officials had expressed concerns about the hiring process.

In the wake of The Times' investigation, the county Board of Supervisors voted in November to set up a "strike team" of monitors to oversee the department's hiring process and ensure its integrity.

abigail.sewell@latimes.com

paul.pringle@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

Feb. 21, 9:40 p.m.: The word "County" was added to clarify the online headline.

The original version of this article was published at 9:34 p.m.

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