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Ousted L.A. fire marshal claims corruption among city fire inspectors

A top Los Angeles Fire Department official is alleging corruption in the city inspection programs he once administered as part of a $5-million retaliation claim filed Tuesday.

Deputy Chief John Vidovich was removed from his post as fire marshal last month after a two-year tenure that was marred by disclosures about delinquent inspections and mounting criticism from the firefighters' labor union.

In his legal claim, Vidovich said he was pushed out after he exposed fraud, extortion and overtime schemes among the LAFD units charged with enforcing fire safety codes for apartment houses, schools, hospitals, film shoots and other buildings.

He pointed the finger at a group of senior inspectors who told The Times in May that, under his leadership, the bureau put the public at risk by requiring it to cut corners on safety reviews in a frantic drive to clear a massive backlog of uninspected buildings. Vidovich denied those accusations.

Vidovich said that when he took over as fire marshal in 2014, the inspection program was “in disarray” with those inspectors responsible for much of the backlog.

He accused them of falsifying records, engineering improper work slowdowns and manipulating a department database to prevent the inspection of vulnerable facilities such as the Veterans Administration hospital near Westwood.

Spokesmen for Mayor Eric Garcetti and the LAFD declined to comment on the allegations. Attorneys for the inspectors Vidovich accused of wrongdoing could not be reached for comment.

Last month, Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas reassigned Vidovich to a newly created position advising Garcetti. Aides to the mayor said they intended to use the fire marshal’s 35 years of experience at the LAFD to complement a drive to streamline new construction projects. 

Vidovich said that the position was non-existent and his ouster was the result of plot to unseat him by the mayor’s office in exchange for an endorsement by the firefighters’ union in Garcetti’s upcoming reelection bid.

The resulting public humiliation “adversely affected his personal health and well-being,” according to the claim, which seeks $5 million in damages as well as legal fees and other costs.

The union that represents inspectors and other firefighters earlier this year voted to approve a resolution of “no confidence” in Vidovich. Before the 3,100-firefighter department decided to replace Vidovich, the union, a powerful player at City Hall, was preparing to pressure the mayor and other elected officials to remove him.

In an interview last month, the union’s president, Capt. Frank Lima, praised the move but denied that it played a role in his group’s endorsement of the mayor. In 2013, when Garcetti won the mayor’s office, the union supported his opponent, then-City Controller Wendy Greuel. Lima was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

Vidovich, whose total compensation was about $236,000 in the last fiscal year, was previously the agency's chief of staff. If the city does not settle his claim, Vidovich is prepared to file a lawsuit suing the city, his attorney said.

His case joins a long history of disputes at the LAFD that have ended up in litigation, which have resulted in millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts over the last several decades.

ben.welsh@latimes.com

Twitter: @palewire

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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