L.A. County fire officials long ignored warnings that hiring was rigged

L.A. County fire officials ignored warnings of hiring abuses for years

For years, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials ignored evidence of the sort of nepotism and cheating that have brought heightened scrutiny to the agency's hiring and promotion practices, according to records and interviews.

A veteran fire captain warned high-ranking department officials in 2012 that family members made up a disproportionate number of recruits and that confidential interview material used in hiring was circulating freely through the station houses, county records recently obtained by The Times show.

Officials now acknowledge that the captain's allegations were never investigated.

It wasn't the first time the department had been made aware of such problems.

In 2008 and 2010, department managers were notified that firefighter candidates might have gotten their hands on similar material before their interviews, according to a county audit triggered by a Times investigation. Officials could not say whether any corrective measures were taken, auditors reported last week.

The case of the captain, Perry Vermillion, offers a possible reason for the department's failure to act. In pressing his allegations, he told the county Civil Service Commission that his own union representative — a fire captain in the department — instructed him to keep quiet about cheating because the representative's son would be in an upcoming academy class for recruits. The son was later hired.

Vermillion, who has since retired, also said in documents submitted to the commission that a quarter of the recruits who won a spot in an academy class were the “children/kin of fire chiefs and captains.”

Vermillion's representative at the time, Dave Morse, declined to be interviewed but said in an email to The Times that “the allegations made by Mr. Vermillion in unsworn pleadings and statements to the Civil Service Commission regarding statements allegedly made by me, are false. The statements attributed to me by Mr. Vermillion were not in fact made by me.”

The Times' investigation into nepotism and cheating found that at least 13% of county firefighters had family connections to the department and that agency insiders had easy access to job-
interview questions and answers that were supposed to be kept under lock and key.

Vermillion declined to comment for this story. He made the allegations as part of his appeal to the commission of the department's decision to deny him a promotion to battalion chief. He contended he was discriminated against because of his age.

Department representatives received copies of his allegations of nepotism and cheating and were present during his two appearances before the commission, according to officials and records. The representatives maintained to the commission that Vermillion was not a victim of discrimination.

In his filings to the commission, Vermillion said “firefighter tests are all over the fire stations,” a reference to the interview material. “Overturn all these tests, let an outside agency handle them all and do not give fire department personnel access to any questions,” Vermillion urged commissioners.

He also alleged that department employees applying for promotions got access to exam materials before they were tested.

Vermillion said in the commission records that he took his complaints to then-Deputy Fire Chief David Richardson, who is currently Fire Chief Daryl Osby's top aide for all emergency operations.

Richardson did not respond to several requests for comment.

In the records, Vermillion said “the department refused to talk about the issues on my appeal on cheating.” He said he handed a document detailing his allegations to Richardson and two other department officials.

Vermillion eventually withdrew his appeal and took his case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, county records show. An EEOC spokeswoman declined to comment on the case, citing a policy barring the agency from publicly discussing possible investigations.

In written statements to The Times, Osby said he personally had not been aware of Vermillion's claims and confirmed that the department did not investigate them. Osby has since asked the county Auditor-Controller Department to launch a new inquiry into the allegations, which is ongoing.

The chief said he hoped auditors would determine “whether the department was sufficiently diligent in examining all allegations of cheating and nepotism” made by Vermillion.

Meanwhile, in response to Times queries, Osby also confirmed that he canceled a 2012 promotional exam for assistant chief after receiving an anonymous allegation that “the security of the questions had been compromised.”

“This was investigated and found to be inconclusive,” Osby said, adding that he ordered his staff to rewrite the test as a precaution. “I took positive steps to protect the security of the examination.”

In its report to the county Board of Supervisors, the Auditor-Controller Department said a personnel analyst alerted a Fire Department manager in 2010 that an unusually large number of job candidates scored high on hiring tests. Suggesting that some candidates could have received the questions before taking the test, the analyst recommended that the process be changed.

Auditors said the department “could not explain what action, if any, was taken.”

They said the manager responsible for the tests could not recall whether the department's executive team was notified of the matter.

In 2008, the audit found, a department employee inadvertently mailed job interview material to at least four firefighter applicants. The department learned of the breach after the applicants reported it, auditors said.

Again, the audit said, officials could not say whether they took any action, and it appeared the department continued to use “substantially the same” interview questions for subsequent exams.

The auditors largely confirmed the findings of The Times' investigation and uncovered more evidence of cheating, including the improper sharing of test materials by employees, among them a battalion chief and 10 captains.

The Times found that lists of questions and answers for interviews of firefighter candidates could be obtained with little effort by department employees, including those who had relatives applying for jobs.

The newspaper reported that statistical experts concluded that the number of relatives hired by the department strongly pointed to nepotism. At least 183 sons of current or former firefighters have served on the force since the start of 2012, according to a Times analysis of payroll, pension, birth, marriage and other records.

The sons represent nearly 7% of the county's 2,750 firefighters.

When the count includes brothers, nephews and others with family ties, at least 370 firefighters — more than 1 in 8 of those on the force — are related to someone now or previously employed by the department, The Times found.

The jobs are highly coveted for their six-figure salaries and generous benefits.

Because of the fierce demand for jobs, nearly 95% of firefighter applicants are rejected.

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