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Firefighter settlement sharply splits council

Times Staff Writers

A torturous debate left the Los Angeles City Council sharply divided by race Tuesday as members weighed whether to restore a settlement offered to a black firefighter whose dinner had been laced with dog food.

For the first time, the council heard directly from Tennie Pierce, the target of the incident, who had filed a discrimination case against the city.

At their lawyer’s recommendation, council members initially voted to pay $2.7 million to keep it from going to trial. But last week -- amid a storm of public reaction -- Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the action, setting the stage for Tuesday’s council session.

“Whatever anyone says about me, I’ve always tried to do what’s right,” said Pierce, holding back tears as his wife sat nearby. “This is wrong. If four black firemen did it to a white fireman, I would stand up [with] the white fireman and say it was wrong.”

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With a decision expected today, all three black members -- Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson -- said they would vote to override the veto because the white firefighters who doctored Pierce’s spaghetti committed an act that could be viewed as racist and because the city could lose more money in court.

But other members said they had come to view it as a firehouse prank, especially after photos surfaced showing Pierce taking part in hazing rituals banned by a Fire Department that has repeatedly been accused in audits and other lawsuits of subjecting blacks to hostile conditions.

The Times obtained portions of a July deposition late Tuesday, in which Pierce denied under oath having joined in the shaving of a fellow firefighter’s groin:

“Were you ever present when a firefighter was shaved?” an assistant city attorney asked.

“No,” said Pierce.

“You’ve never done that?”

“I’ve never done it.”

“And if anybody said you did, they would be lying?” the attorney continued.

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“They are lying,” Pierce said.

Yet Pierce appears in a photo of just such an incident, and he admitted Tuesday that he had participated in hazing out of a sense of camaraderie.

“Yes, we do have what you call hazing, we do have what you call pranks, but there’s a certain level you have to go to, and a certain level that has to be stopped,” Pierce said.

“I was involved in those pictures, I don’t deny it, but so were many others,” he said. “But those pictures were done in love to guys who were promoted, to guys who had a long stint with the Fire Department.”

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Genie Harrison, Pierce’s lawyer, said the firefighter in the photo has a signed declaration that says it was a hoax.

“The person who is the alleged victim of the shaving is saying that they did not actually shave him, they staged it and they took the photos and these things are shown at retirement parties,” Harrison said.

With 12 of 15 members present, the council agreed to delay a final decision until the absent Wendy Greuel, Ed Reyes and Alex Padilla rejoin them today. When the group reconvenes, it is to meet with City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo’s staff in a closed session permitted when officials take up legal issues. To override the veto and restore the settlement, 10 members would have to oppose the mayor, a prospect that seems unlikely.

Council President Eric Garcetti said it is possible that the council could emerge with an offer of a different settlement. Or it could instruct the city attorney to let the case go to a judge or jury.

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Harrison said she would be satisfied with that: “I’ve already won the case,” Pierce’s lawyer said. “That’s one reason that the city attorney has been telling the council and presumably the mayor’s office to settle.”

The firefighter case has led both the council and the mayor into a political thicket from which there is no easy escape. Approving the large settlement could mean incurring public wrath from those who see it as squandering city money on an unsympathetic plaintiff. Opposing it, however, could be viewed as sanctioning discrimination and harassment.

At one juncture Tuesday, Councilwoman Perry held up a bag of dog food that she said had been mailed to her at the urging of radio talk show hosts who for weeks have mocked the proposed settlement as being too much for what they call a relatively harmless act.

“You’ll never know how much I understand,” Perry said to Pierce and his wife, Brenda.

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Turning to other black firefighters who accompanied the Pierces, Perry added: “It must make them physically sick that they have to keep going through this [racism] over and over and over again, and it must make them wonder if it will ever stop.”

Later, Councilman Greig Smith ardently argued that he believed the dog food incident was serious but not racist.

“It is wrong, it is abusive, it is dehumanizing to all races and not just African Americans,” Smith said. “I’m sorry, sir. The question here today is do we pay Mr. Pierce for his charge of racism or look at it for what it is.”

Councilman Parks told Pierce that his comments had “brought tears to my eyes.”

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Parks said he had recently spoken on “The John & Ken Show” on KFI-AM (640), whose hosts have been prominent in fighting the settlement, and “I had the great pleasure of them hanging up on me.

“I said [to them], ‘When’s the last time that you ate dog food?’ ”

Pierce suggested to the council that the pranks he participated in were good-natured and said that, when they were over, “people would hug the person and take pictures with them. What they did to me at the Fire Station 5 was wrong because it was something I did not know. My mother worked three jobs to get me where I am today. At no time did she ever feed us dog food.”

Pierce said that what bothered him most was that white firefighters watched him eat. And, when he complained, the Fire Department didn’t help.

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“You have to stand up when you do something wrong. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” Pierce said. “The captains never stood up. If they would have said in the office ‘I put it in your food. I’m sorry.’ I would have washed it clean. But they didn’t.”

“If it wasn’t for my no vote” in the initial 11-1 settlement, “we wouldn’t be here,” said Councilman Dennis Zine, who remains the most outspoken critic of the deal. “I’m Middle Eastern and a minority” -- Zine is of Lebanese descent -- “and I’ve been called many different names in my career [as a Los Angeles police officer], but it was not done in my opinion as a negative. It was done in brotherhood.”

After the five-hour council meeting Tuesday, Councilwoman Janice Hahn paused as she returned to her office.

“This whole thing is literally making me sick to my stomach,” Hahn said. “No one should be humiliated or treated with such disrespect.”

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“I think this case cries out for people to vote their conscience.”

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

jim.newton@latimes.com

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