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L.A. County Fire Department cheating extended beyond hiring, audit finds

L.A. County Fire Department shows exam cheating scandal extended beyond hiring process

Los Angeles County auditors uncovered evidence that the type of cheating undermining the Fire Department’s hiring process extended to promotional exams and other testing requirements within the agency.

Auditors said a search of department emails revealed at least nine different tests had been circulating among department employees. The breaches included civil service exams for fire captains and tests for driving and emergency medical skills.

The audit was launched in response to a Los Angeles Times investigation last year that 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 for prospective recruits.

Evidence of more widespread cheating was revealed during the audit.

“The totality of our findings suggests that dissemination of examination content between fire personnel is not uncommon,” auditors said.

The audit official who oversaw the internal inquiry said Monday that his office would give Fire Chief Daryl Osby more detailed information about the other exams that were compromised. Robert Campbell, the acting assistant auditor-controller, said the information would be contained in a confidential report and it would be the Fire Department's responsibility to deal with any employees who broke the rules.

"We’re not the ultimate decision-makers in any disciplinary action," Campbell said of the audit office.

Since the audit was confined to issues raised by The Times investigation, auditors said they did not conduct a comprehensive inquiry into other potential test violations. Auditors only stumbled upon the other test breaches while searching emails related to the hiring process.

They said they did not know “the entire population of examinations that were compromised” and the problem could be worse. 

Osby sent an email to the Board of Supervisors on Sunday outlining steps the department had taken to reform the hiring process, including developing a new examination and asking for the audit.

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who represents the Westside, said in light of the audit's finding that additional tests may have been compromised, "I find the fire chief's response to us inadequate."

"I think we need to dig further into how broadly this permeated the Fire Department and other examinations," she said.

Kuehl and two other supervisors also voiced concerns that irregularities in the Fire Department's hiring process might have led to minorities and women being discriminated against or discouraged from applying.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents South Los Angeles, said he would ask for a follow-up report looking at the demographics of the candidates and whether women and minority candidates had been shut out. 

"Absent presentation of demographic data, that's a reasonable conclusion to draw," he said.

He said of the report's findings: "I think it's quite problematic, and I think corrective action is warranted, and I think the public has a right to expect it and, indeed, will see it."

The Times reported in its investigation that, just 1.4% of county firefighters were women. At the same time, at least 183 sons of current or former firefighters have served on the force since the start of 2012, according to an analysis of payroll, pension, birth, marriage and other records.

All told, sons represent 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 Times found.

Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the eastern portion of the county, said in a statement that she was "very troubled" by the audit findings.

"The hiring process was compromised, which erodes public trust and prevents the department from identifying the best candidates," she said. "...The opportunity to work as a firefighter must be open to all, including women and members of minority groups, who must compete in an environment free of favoritism or nepotism.”

Kuehl also expressed concerns about the "talented individuals we are not bringing into the Fire Department because of this kind of cronyism or nepotism."

"When it looks like there's so much nepotism and so much cutting corners, I think it has the potential effect of discouraging applicants," she said.

The supervisors last November voted to set up a "strike team" to oversee the Fire Department's hiring process. 

Twitter: @sewella

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