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California

Union pressured Mayor Garcetti’s office to oust top fire official, court records show

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stands next to city Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Fire Marshal John Vidovich was at the peak of his career in 2015. He ran the city’s Fire Prevention Bureau, oversaw more than 150 employees and won awards from Mayor Eric Garcetti for his department’s work inspecting buildings for fire safety.

But when Vidovich clashed with a group of fire inspectors working for him, he was transferred out of the post.

That began a legal fight that exposed threats of vindictive paybacks and accusations of backroom deals involving top officials at City Hall and a powerful public employee union.

Vidovich sued the city in January 2017, alleging that Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, Garcetti and aides to the mayor pushed him out at the behest of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112, after he exposed “illegal and fraudulent acts” by inspectors in his bureau.

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Attorneys for the city defended Vidovich’s transfer, arguing in court filings seeking to dismiss the case that tensions between the fire marshal and those reporting to him were disrupting the department.

The mayor’s office and the union declined to comment on the lawsuit. A court hearing on a proposed settlement is scheduled for next month.

The case offers a glimpse into the interactions between the union and Garcetti’s inner circle over a contentious personnel matter.

Text messages and emails in court filings show union members and its president pressured city officials to replace Vidovich, who had worked for the Fire Department for 36 years.

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Ultimately, Garcetti’s top aides sought to create a new position in the mayor’s office for Vidovich, according to depositions the aides gave in the case.

Asked during a 2017 deposition if he knew of another time a union had approached the mayor or chief’s office asking to remove someone from a department posting, Terrazas replied: “I’m not aware of any.”

‘Gangster campaign’

Terrazas and Vidovich were longtime friends who worked together for decades. Both lived in San Pedro, where their children played soccer together.

In 2014, Terrazas appointed Vidovich to lead the Fire Prevention Bureau — a department that Terrazas acknowledged had problems. Vidovich was in charge of Operation Catch-Up, a program to reduce the backlog of buildings due for inspections of sprinklers, alarms and other life-saving equipment.

A Times investigation in 2015 of the backlog found that about 6,800 buildings were months or even years overdue for a safety review.

Problems quickly developed between Vidovich and those he supervised at the bureau.

Vidovich testified in his deposition that he found fire inspectors falsifying and destroying records, and demanding unnecessary overtime. Vidovich said he told his superiors, including Terrazas.

An investigation later sustained one of his allegations but not another, a Fire Department spokeswoman said.

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Frank Lima, then the union’s president, testified in a deposition that inspectors became upset after Vidovich cracked down on overtime pay and asked them to use iPads in the field, which could allow supervisors to track their whereabouts in real time.

Also, a group of inspectors alleged in a 2016 Times article that the bureau, under Vidovich, had cut corners by using poorly trained firefighters who were coaxed by supervisors to relax safety rules and overlook violations.

After an investigation, the department later found “insufficient evidence to sustain any charges,” the spokeswoman said.

With tensions escalating in February 2016, several inspectors met with Jeff Gorell, Garcetti’s deputy mayor overseeing public safety.

“They met with me as a union,” Gorell wrote in an email to others in the mayor’s office. “But they only had one demand/request — that Terrazas fire the fire marshal — Chief Vidovich.”

Terrazas briefed the mayor on how he was handling the situation, Gorell’s email said.

A month later, the union approved a resolution of “no confidence” in Vidovich.

As part of their campaign against the fire marshal, Lima said in a deposition, union members planned to put billboards up in San Pedro attacking him — along with posts on social media and possibly advertisements in The Times. The union wanted the publicity to “reflect badly” on the Fire Department.

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On Aug. 9, 2016, Lima texted Gorell, asking if there had been any “resolution” with Vidovich. If not, Lima wrote that the union was ready to spend $250,000 on a “gangster campaign” against the fire marshal and warned that there would be negative consequences for Garcetti.

“The mayor will take a hit on this, and we DO NOT WANT THAT AT ALL,” Lima wrote to Gorell. “Let me know where we are to hopefully avoid this and hopefully Terrazas can make the very smart decision to save himself, the mayor, and the city bad press and embarrassment.”

During his deposition, Lima was asked about the text.

“So essentially you were threatening Mr. Gorell with this campaign unless they agreed to remove Chief Vidovich per your demands here?” asked attorney Michael Turrill, who represents Vidovich.

“I wasn’t threatening,” Lima replied. “I was promising.”

New job in mayor’s office

Terrazas said in his deposition that he agonized over whether to move Vidovich, but ultimately did so because he was worried the union’s attacks would hurt Vidovich, his family and the Fire Department.

Amid the turmoil, Vidovich testified that he and Terrazas met at a golf course and drank beers. Terrazas “talked about that he was now getting pressure from the mayor’s office, about moving me out of the fire marshal position,” Vidovich testified.

During another conversation, Terrazas told Vidovich that “the mayor’s office has me over a barrel,” according to Vidovich’s deposition. Vidovich asked who in the mayor’s office and Terrazas replied, “the mayor.”

In his deposition, Terrazas testified that he may have said he was “over a barrel” because of the situation, but denied that he was referring to the mayor.

Meanwhile, Gorell and others had started discussing a job for Vidovich in the mayor’s office, according to their text messages included in the public court file.

On Aug. 11, 2016, Vidovich met with Ana Guerrero, Garcetti’s chief of staff, as well as Gorell, Terrazas and then-Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, and was told about his new position.

Vidovich was “angry” during the meeting and wanted more specifics about what his duties would be, Guerrero later testified. In response, she said she would put together a job description, according to her testimony.

In his deposition, Vidovich said he was never told what the job would be.

About two weeks later, The Times reported Vidovich’s departure in a front-page article that cited the delinquent inspections and mounting criticism of him from the firefighters’ union. Lima was quoted as saying the union was “very happy” and that the union remained comfortable with its earlier decision to back Garcetti in his 2017 reelection bid for mayor.

Vidovich said in his deposition that he was embarrassed and upset by The Times’ story. He sent a text to Terrazas that said the union “crossed the line.”

In his lawsuit against the city, Vidovich alleged that he was moved out in exchange for the union’s support of Garcetti’s reelection bid. Lima, now a vice president with the International Assn. of Firefighters, and the mayor’s office denied the allegation.

City attorneys said in court documents seeking to dismiss the case that Terrazas was the decision-maker behind Vidovich’s removal, not Garcetti.

They cited “workplace disharmony,” including an “attempted work slowdown” and the planned smear campaign as among the reasons to transfer him.

“The city and the fire chief must be able to reassign its personnel in order to manage its operations, and in this case, to avoid a potentially embarrassing public campaign lodged by the union against the plaintiff,” city attorneys wrote in court filings seeking to dismiss the case.

Shortly after the fire marshal lost his job, Garcetti left Vidovich a voicemail.

“John, it’s Eric Garcetti, just calling to check in and see how you’re doing,” the mayor said, according to a filing submitted by Vidovich’s attorney seeking to compel the mayor to testify in the case. “I know it’s been a tough few weeks. I just wanted to call that a) I am a huge fan of yours, and b) there has been no direction from me whatsoever on any of this. … I want you to know your mayor has your back and is thinking of you.”

Vidovich, who was replaced by then-Asst. Chief Kristin Crowley, never went to work in Garcetti’s office.

Guerrero had heard that Vidovich had been sending emails, insisting Garcetti had ruined his career, the mayor’s chief of staff said in her deposition. That prompted her to tell Chan and Gorell that “we cannot have him in the mayor’s office,” she said.

Instead, Vidovich went to the Fire Department’s South L.A. bureau and retired in May 2017.

dakota.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @dakotacdsmith


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