The Orange County district attorney’s office said Friday that an investigation into allegations that Westminster firefighters improperly accrued overtime pay determined there is “insufficient evidence” of any criminal wrongdoing.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Matthew Anderson, who conducted the inquiry, declined to elaborate on the investigation other than to say that it “was pretty extensive. We covered all areas, including a wide-ranging review of payroll practices within the Westminster Fire Department. Considering that what we were looking for is proof of criminal wrongdoing, I can’t discuss specifics. . . . I don’t want to hurt anybody’s rights.”
The investigation was launched after city officials charged in September that firefighters used loopholes in the payroll system, including lax reporting policies, to run up overtime charges of nearly $5 million since 1986. The allegation was based on a review done by the auditing firm KPMG Peat Marwick.
A final report submitted April 12 by the accounting firm said that part of the overtime expenses from 1986 to 1993 were caused in part by poor management, faulty record-keeping and inherent flaws in the department payroll system.
The district attorney’s office said in a statement that it reviewed overtime pay, shift trades and other areas related to Fire Department staffing and payroll and concluded that “insufficient evidence exists to prove criminal intent on the part of any member of the Fire Department. Accordingly, criminal charges will not be filed in connection with this investigation.”
Despite that finding, the rancorous battle between the City Council and the firefighters showed no signs of ending.
Westminster Firefighters Assn. President Paul Gilbrook said that the district attorney’s announcement was a vindication for the firefighters.
“We’re very relieved,” said Gilbrook, who was fired in February for allegedly exchanging sick leave for cash improperly and driving a firetruck with a suspended driver’s license.
“The D.A. has come up with something that we have been telling everyone off and on for the past year. We knew all along we’re honest people,” Gilbrook said.
Gilbrook said that city officials engaged in a “witch hunt” and retribution for firefighters’ political activities, including supporting a candidate who opposed Mayor Charles V. Smith in the 1992 election.
“We’ve been exonerated,” Gilbrook said. “This is good for the firefighters who have had very low morale.”
Alan C. Davis, the firefighters union attorney, said that the district attorney’s findings will enhance the firefighters’ federal civil rights lawsuit filed last month against the city.
“It is still a sad day, because the Westminster firefighters firmly believe that the City Council will continue their vicious attacks on the firefighters,” he said. “The mayor and City Council should resign now and allow citizens to replace them with people who are concerned with the safety of the city of Westminster.”
Smith, one of four council members targeted by the firefighters union for recall, said he was disappointed by the district attorney’s finding. He said he will consider asking the Orange County Grand Jury to consider the same material submitted to the district attorney’s office for criminal action.
City Atty. Richard Jones, before Friday’s announcement, had said that the city could file a civil lawsuit to recover the overtime pay that the firefighters may have taken improperly. Jones could not be reached Friday, but the mayor said the city would move forward with a civil lawsuit to recover overtime pay.
“The major reason I’m disappointed is it’s been a massive fraud by the firefighters union perpetrated on the taxpayers,” Smith said. “And even though the district attorney didn’t find sufficient evidence to prove their case in court, that doesn’t absolve them. . . . That just blows my mind.”
The district attorney’s announcement came just as city officials completed dismissal hearings against two battalion chiefs, two captains and a paramedic over some of the same allegations that prosecutors were investigating.
Smith said that the city planned to continue with its effort to fire the firefighters it believes improperly took overtime pay.
“It’s not going to have any impact on dismissals,” Smith said.
Next month, city and union officials will face off in yet another arena, this one the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles over civil rights lawsuits filed by the firefighters union against several municipal officials, including Smith and three council members.
Davis, the firefighters union attorney, said that the suit before Judge Ronald S. Lew seeks the reinstatement of Gilbrook and another dismissed firefighter and payment of damages to the reputation of the two union officials as a result of the city action.
The district attorney’s decision also came just as the campaigning began for the June 7 election to recall Smith and council members Craig Schweisinger, Charmayne S. Bohman and Tony Lam.
The firefighters union is supporting the recall drive, stemming from last year’s cuts in the Fire Department budget that firefighters have alleged reduced the city’s fire protection capabilities.
City officials said the cuts were part of the reorganization of the Fire Department and have led to an increase of paramedic services to residents living around Fire Station 3 on the city’s west side.
Although he was not optimistic, Smith said he would continue to resist the recall effort.
“I’m going to fight right to the end,” he said. “It’s going to end in a recall of four of us, and the takeover of the city of Westminster by the firefighters union, which is what they’re trying to do.”