Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued the first veto of his administration Monday, striking down the City Council’s approval of a lawsuit settlement that would pay $2.7 million to an African American firefighter who contended that he was a victim of racial harassment.
The case involved Tennie Pierce, who sued the city after discovering that dog food had been mixed into a spaghetti dinner served him by fellow firefighters. But the settlement’s size, which was the largest in Fire Department history, triggered a swell of negative public reaction that deepened when a website posted photographs of Pierce engaged in hazing pranks.
The mayor’s veto sent a rebuke to the council, which had voted 11 to 1 for the settlement earlier this month, and to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who recommended the deal although some of his deputies knew from lawsuit testimony that Pierce had appeared in photos of Fire Department hazing.
Several council members said the city attorney did not show any photos to them before the settlement vote.
Delgadillo could not be reached for comment, but an aide said city lawyers had shared what they knew with the council.
Villaraigosa said he wanted the council to reconsider its decision in light of the photographs. Along with his veto, the mayor unveiled what he described as an anti-hazing policy for firefighters and other city employees that would toughen the city’s approach to misconduct. The Fire Department, however, already has a “zero tolerance” hazing policy.
“Like every Angeleno, I am deeply troubled by the [discrimination] allegations raised here,” Villaraigosa said.
“However, new information has come to light.... Given the magnitude of the recommended settlement, taxpayers have a right to demand a reconsideration with the full benefit of all the facts.”
When some photos surfaced last week, the council rejected a motion to reconsider the settlement, with six of its 15 members favoring that approach; under City Charter rules, 10 were needed to take the matter up again.
But two members said Monday that they expected the council to comply with the mayor’s wishes.
“If anyone attempts to override the mayor’s veto, that will send a very sad message about defending the taxpayer’s money,” said City Councilman Dennis Zine, who cast the lone vote against the settlement.
Council members Wendy Greuel and Jack Weiss, who voted for the deal, said they wanted to revisit the issue in light of the Pierce photos.
“Based on new evidence which has recently been disclosed to me, I believe it is important that the council review its previous decision approving the suit,” Greuel said. “I look forward to being apprised of all the relevant evidence in the possession of the city attorney concerning this case.”
Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez would not comment on whether the city attorney had shared photos of Pierce engaging in hazing pranks before recommending that taxpayers pay Pierce $2.7 million rather than risk a larger jury verdict if the case went to trial.
“The city attorney made a comprehensive presentation to the City Council and mediator,” Velasquez said. “I cannot go beyond that and detail specific information, as that would violate the attorney-client relationship.”
Multimillion-dollar settlements are rare but not unheard of at City Hall, where the city’s deep pockets and the elevated profile of cases often raise the stakes.
Only last month, the council agreed to pay $2.85 million to settle five federal civil rights suits including some that alleged that criminal suspects were framed by officers involved in the Rampart Division police corruption scandal.
In June, the council voted to pay $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the mother of Devin Brown, the 13-year-old boy fatally shot by a police officer in February 2005 as he was driving a stolen car.
The resolution of Pierce’s case remains unclear. The council could seek a new settlement or fight the allegations. Pierce’s attorney, Genie Harrison, said she looks forward to trying the case.
“I can’t wait to see them in court,” she said.
Pierce sued the city for racial harassment in November 2005 after a fellow firefighter, with the assent of captains, mixed canned dog food into his spaghetti dinner. For a year afterward, his lawsuit said, he was ridiculed and taunted on the job, creating an “oppressive, hostile work environment.”
But the city’s settlement ignited public controversy after it became a target of the popular talk radio program “The John & Ken Show,” on KFI AM-640.
The hosts received hundreds of calls and e-mails criticizing the settlement, including several from firefighters who sent along photos of Pierce participating in crude firehouse pranks, which the station posted on its website.
Since then, the hosts have campaigned to overturn the settlement, urging listeners to send cans of dog food to the city attorney and council members who voted for it and to bombard media outlets with complaints.
The fallout has heightened racial tensions in the Fire Department, already the subject of a highly critical audit earlier this year by Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick. That report portrayed a department where hazing and harassment were commonplace, discipline was inconsistent and ineffective, and the rank and file had little confidence in management’s pronouncements.
Two-thirds of firefighters surveyed said Chief William Bamattre has sent “strong messages against all types of harassment,” yet 60% of firefighters said they had participated in hazing within the department.
Firefighters faulted the department’s system of discipline; almost half said that management fails to objectively and professionally investigate rule violations, and that rank, gender, race or personal connections often dictate penalties.
The audit, released in January, will be reviewed for the first time by the council’s Public Safety Committee next Monday.
On a parallel track, the Fire Commission will get its first look today at proposed revisions to the department’s discipline code that are expected to toughen and standardize penalties.
Bamattre has sought to quell the uproar. Last week, he sent a letter to the rank and file that emphasized the department’s “policy of zero tolerance of discrimination, harassment or a hostile work environment” and the importance of a “working environment characterized by trust and respect for the individual.”
But outgoing firefighters’ union President Pat McOsker said discipline and enforcement of that policy had been “real biased.”
“I would say we have a failure at the top, and the firefighters out there in the field are good people who do good work and really tend to get along well and respect one another,” he said. “The real problem is in leadership.... [Bamattre] has not been a strong and effective leader. I would say the management is really in disarray. People aren’t taking orders.”
Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.