Westminster Ordered to Pay 5 Ex-Firefighters $2 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal jury on Tuesday ordered Westminster to pay nearly $2 million to five firefighters who, the panel found, were unjustly disciplined or fired by top city officials.

That figure could soar as early as today when the same jury will listen to more evidence before deciding whether to also award punitive damages and if so, how much.

The firefighters' attorney, Alan C. Davis of San Francisco, said the jury rendered "a very fair verdict." City Atty. Richard D. Jones said the city would appeal the verdict immediately.

Tuesday's verdicts marked the second time within a week that jurors handed Westminster a major defeat in its bitter battle with former firefighters. Last week, the panel found that Mayor Charles V. Smith, Councilman Tony Lam, former Councilman Craig Schweisinger, former Fire Chief John T. DeMonaco Jr., Finance Director Brian Mayhew and city official Don Anderson conspired to violate the civil rights of five firefighters by firing or disciplining them after an investigation into suspected payroll fraud several years ago.

That investigation looked into large amounts of overtime pay claimed by firefighters--more than $900,000 in one year. City officials accused firefighters of falsifying time cards and claiming overtime for hours they did not work.

The firefighters union blamed the overtime charges on the City Council's refusal to hire more firefighters. Some of the firefighters clashed with city leaders and campaigned to recall council members. Several were fired or disciplined.

After the jury's verdicts were announced Tuesday, council members met in closed-door session to discuss a last-ditch option of offering the firefighters other city jobs if they drop their request for punitive damages.

Lam, responding to a demand from a resident Tuesday night that he and the other city officials step down, said, "I did my best job as an elected official. I feel distressed and frustrated overall. I feel we did our best to protect the taxpayers' money."

Councilwoman Margie L. Rice, who has consistently urged the council to settle the dispute out of court, said council members could not agree on that matter.

Rice said the city could not offer the men firefighting jobs because the Fire Department has been taken over by the Orange County Fire Authority. The city's contract with that agency specifically prohibits reinstatement of firefighters who have sued the city, Rice said.

In addition to punitive damages, the city may be ordered by U.S. District Judge Richard A. Paez to pay the firefighters' legal fees, which could be "well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars," Davis said.

In addition, Davis said, he represents 18 other former Westminster firefighters whose federal lawsuits are pending against the city. All were either fired or disciplined, he said.

On Tuesday, the jury awarded the plaintiffs a total of $1,977,500 as follows: $1.1 million to Hal Raphael, $770,000 to Don Herr, $49,000 to Joe Wilson, $43,500 to Dana Bowler and $15,000 to Paul Gilbrook.

Lawyers for both sides said jurors probably awarded a heftier sum to Raphael because evidence presented during the trial showed that he suffered the greatest loss after losing his job as battalion chief.

Raphael now works part-time as a longshoreman. Wilson and Bowler, who were fired and reinstated by the city, now work for the Orange County Fire Authority. Herr, who served as acting fire chief and battalion chief before he was fired in 1994, is now employed as an entry-level firefighter in Redondo Beach. Gilbrook, who now works part-time for a firefighters' union, received $15,000 because jurors found he was slandered by Schweisinger, who compared him to late Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Rice said the awards were "pretty darn close" to the settlement amount the firefighters had sought. Apart from the compensation, Rice said, the dismissed firefighters also wanted their jobs back.

Rice said she hopes the city will negotiate settlements with the other plaintiffs.

Times correspondents Shelby Grad and John Pope contributed to this report.

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