Despite repeated vows to reform the way it handles costly discrimination and misconduct complaints, the Los Angeles Fire Department relies on a disciplinary system plagued by poor documentation, uneven punishment and a lack of clear guidelines, according to a new city audit.
The problems outlined in the 220-page report mirror findings that have been raised continuously in city audits dating to 1994.
The latest report also calls into question whether overwhelmed department investigators can keep up with more than 1,600 complaints filed in the last two years alone.
The cases cited in the study occurred between 2007 and last year -- after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and top fire officials promised to change department culture in the wake of legal payouts that had cost taxpayers millions of dollars to settle claims of harassment, retaliation and discrimination.
The audit, conducted by the Fire Commission's independent assessor, credited the department with making improvements but noted that it has a way to go to address long-standing problems in its investigative process. The report was presented Tuesday to the Fire Commission.
Among the problem cases cited in the latest audit:
* A firefighter told two Jewish firefighters, "I'll stick you in an oven," and later pushed a firehouse bench toward one of the men after he had filed a discrimination complaint. A station captain failed to take action after being told of the comments, and department investigators failed to properly investigate the incident involving the bench.
* A firefighter used a racial epithet in front of several co-workers who were having dinner with an African American colleague after a department golf tournament. The firefighter should have been temporarily removed from duty but was only issued a written reprimand.
* An off-duty paramedic was caught by police with a prostitute in his car as the two appeared ready to engage in a sexual act. Department investigators conducted a cursory interview and failed to file adequately researched reports. In the end, the paramedic was suspended for six days.
The audit also recommended that the department immediately stop seeking investigative subpoenas after finding alleged misconduct by an investigator serving a subpoena for confidential medical records.
Battalion Chief Ronnie Villanueva said in an interview that the department acknowledged the problems in the audit and is working with the Fire Commission to reform its investigation and disciplinary system.
"We embrace the report," said Villanueva, a department spokesman. "We need to change the way we do business. We need to improve our process."
In 2006, the 3,600-member department was racked by several high-profile lawsuits, including one in which a black firefighter was fed dog food at a Westchester firehouse.
The ensuing controversy prompted the resignation of Fire Chief William Bamattre and led to the creation of the Professional Standards Division, which fire officials held out as the answer to a broken process.
But the unit, which has 13 investigators, can handle about 100 cases a year. Yet it received 538 complaints in 2008 and more than 1,100 last year, the audit said.
"The increased number of complaints has severely impacted and will continue to severely impact the ability to effectively conduct investigations, prosecute disciplinary hearings, target areas of concern and appropriately manage the disciplinary system," the report concluded.
Attorney Robert Rico, who represents five firefighters whose cases are cited in the audit, said a major problem with the unit is that its investigators are poorly trained and commanded by supervisors interested in maintaining the status quo.
"It's been headed by chiefs who are part of the problem," Rico said of the unit.
"It is not run well."