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Fury on the airwaves undid bias settlement

Times Staff Writers

It seemed like a slam-dunk when the Los Angeles City Council made a near-unanimous decision to pay black firefighter Tennie Pierce $2.7 million to settle a racial harassment lawsuit that claimed he had been tricked into eating dog food by station mates, then taunted for months.

But almost immediately, other voices in Los Angeles demanded to be heard.

The talk show team on KFI-AM (640)'s “John & Ken Show” wasted no time making the case a cause celebre, pumping up listeners with daily drive-time diatribes against the settlement. Council members began backtracking. The fire chief intensified his push to toughen department discipline. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to offer something for everyone -- vetoing the settlement but demanding an end to the kind of hazing that led to the headlines.

On Tuesday, the furor continued. The NAACP called for the ouster of fire Chief William Bamattre. The newly elected union head applauded the mayor’s veto, saying institutional racism is not a problem. And it became clear that fault lines between the mayor, city attorney and council were widening.

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The case was only the most recent in a string of settlements of Fire Department harassment claims.

But it was a case tailor-made for radio talk-show fame, thanks to the hefty price tag and the notion, in some quarters, that Pierce -- called “the Big Dog” by fellow firefighters because he is 6 feet 5 -- was being paid off for a harmless prank.

Pierce, 51, alleged that a firefighter mixed canned dog food into his dinner at their Westchester station two years ago with the assent of two captains. He contends that the taunting he endured afterward forced him to leave the department.

After the settlement was announced Nov. 8, radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou urged listeners to send dog food to the 11 “nincompoop” council members who approved the settlement and to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who recommended it. Last week, several council offices received cans of dog food; others received voice mail protests. In Northridge, a councilman’s secretary was pelted with a bag of kibble.

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Firefighters, angry that their department was being maligned, began calling in to the radio program, and several sent along old photos of Pierce -- shirtless and beaming -- participating in crude firehouse pranks that involved half-naked men, shaving cream and what appeared to be mustard.

The photos were posted on the program’s website and displayed on television, and public outrage heated up.

“When people saw [Pierce] participated in pranks, that was what really ignited them,” Kobylt said. “If we didn’t have those pictures, it would have gone away a lot sooner.”

The pictures proved to be critical to the case’s undoing. Villaraigosa said the hazing they portrayed sickened him.

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“Like most Angelenos, I find these images deeply disturbing ... reprehensible and juvenile,” he said, reiterating the city’s zero-tolerance policy on hazing. The photos also made him question whether the case had been fully investigated.

And they gave council members pause to rethink the case.

The outcry drove home to the lawmakers that they had overwhelmingly approved a settlement that was wildly unpopular with a vocal segment of the public.

They blamed Delgadillo, whose office continued to defend the settlement Tuesday in a letter to the council.

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The office said the council was told about the photos of Pierce. Council members, in turn, said there was a brief mention of the photos -- in a closed-session discussion of the case in June -- but added that they had not seen them and were not fully aware of their content.

Councilman Dennis Zine, a reserve Los Angeles police officer, was the lone council member to oppose the settlement, contending that the price tag was too high for what he believed to be a prank.

Pierce “has been a firefighter for 20 years, and now all of a sudden he wants to throw in the race card,” Zine said. “They didn’t feed him dog food because he was African American. It was because he called himself the ‘Big Dog.’ ”

In the last week, as public pressure built, other council members began wavering. By the time Councilman Bill Rosendahl joined Zine to ask that the payout be reconsidered, the 11-1 vote on the settlement had become 6 to 6 to reconsider it.

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“I wouldn’t let the issue go,” Zine said. “Any media that called, I gave a statement.”

Zine appeared on the “John & Ken Show” at least three times and was a guest on eight other radio programs.

The retreat incensed Pierce’s supporters. His lawyer, Genie Harrison, issued a blistering release, citing the department’s history of racial discrimination and outlining the case she would argue in court if the settlement was revoked.

“Mr. Pierce’s lost wages and pension from being forced off the department amount to $1.56 million,” Harrison wrote. “This case is not just about two bites of dog food. It is about the loss of a career, a man’s dignity and about his decision to fight against the injustice continually visited upon blacks in the Los Angeles Fire Department.”

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The controversy heated up already tense race relations in some firehouses and ushered in a slate of less conciliatory union leaders.

“We’ve been getting calls from [firefighters] on both sides of the issue,” outgoing President Pat McOsker said.

“But it’s not appropriate for us to be taking sides in a lawsuit. Whatever the motivation was, unfortunately it happened, and the union doesn’t want it to ever happen again. We want everybody to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Newly elected President Steve Tufts had no such compunction, accusing Pierce of using “an ill-conceived practical joke ... to evoke some of the most horrid images from the fire service’s past and cash in.”

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The split has reverberated in some fire stations, creating such a racial divide that Bamattre compared the tensions to the period after the 1992 riots, when he had to go in with mediators to smooth relations at some stations.

“Something like this starts to galvanize people,” Bamattre said. “And naturally, it’s along racial lines. It heightens underlying tensions. We have to do whatever we can to get officers to control that.”

Although the firestorm seemed to take some in the city by surprise, Kobylt said it resonated because it involved money, race and politics.

“If it was 50,000 bucks, people would have shrugged it off,” he said. “The amount of money, when the violation seems exceedingly minor, that’s what set people off.

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“There’s not a chance in the world that a white guy’s going to get $3 million because his spaghetti was spiked with dog food.... It’s the unfairness that people react to. People are fed up with the political correctness of it all.”

On Tuesday, the matter will go back before the City Council, where 10 of 15 votes will be needed to override the mayor’s veto -- an unlikely possibility. The council can also direct the city attorney to resume settlement talks or prepare for a trial.

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson found it “hard to say whether” the mayor’s action “was a good move, unless you’ve seen the evidence.... It is certainly rolling the dice to take the case to court.”

But Kobylt, judging from his listeners’ response, said the city ought to take its chance in court. “Good luck finding 12 people to say this guy deserves anything,” he said.

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“I think most people think like me. As long as the guys are coming to save my house when it’s burning, I don’t care what they’re doing in the firehouse.”

sandy.banks@latimes.com

steve.hymon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.

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