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Fire chief vows to restore agency's reputation

His eyes welling with tears, Sacramento Fire Chief Julius "Joe" Cherry vowed Tuesday to return his scandal-ridden department to respectability even as Mayor Heather Fargo and two City Council members said that four firefighters should be fired if sex allegations against them are true.

The political leaders warned that they would be closely watching Cherry and City Manager Bob Thomas to ensure that the proper discipline is meted out in this latest department scandal.

Cherry revealed Monday that he had launched an investigation into charges that the four firefighters - three men and a woman - had engaged in group sex in their Hollywood Park station house.

"This will be the real test," said Councilman Steve Cohn about Cherry and Thomas' handling of the allegations. "Obviously the message is not yet strong enough - we will not tolerate inappropriate behavior."

When Fargo was asked Tuesday if she believed Cherry was capable of turning around the troubled department, she replied: "He'd better."

Cherry said he's required by law to fairly investigate the allegations and could not say what discipline would be forthcoming. His voice shaking with emotion during in an interview at The Bee, Cherry said that he loves the department, and although he cannot change the culture alone, he believes progress is being made.

"I will lead this organization. If I'm fired, fine. But I'm not going to run away," said Cherry, who took over as fire chief in May after serving 28 years in the department.

Thomas said he has the "ultimate confidence" in Cherry's ability to lead the organization and to make appropriate discipline decisions.

In recent months, the Fire Department has been rocked by disclosures of firefighter misconduct, including drinking on duty, cruising bars, giving joy rides to women in fire vehicles and attending a Porn Star Costume Ball. In all, 24 firefighters received some level of discipline.

City leaders held a get-tough news conference in October announcing that nine firefighters were being fired or allowed to resign because of their roles in the controversy. But two days later the city quietly allowed five of the firefighters to sign "last chance" contracts that reinstated them in their jobs.

Some City Council members were upset they weren't informed about the turnaround in discipline, and Cherry and Thomas eventually issued a formal letter of apology to the group. Council members have stated as recently as December that they would be increasingly concerned if more misconduct was unearthed. Those revelations came Monday.

Cherry announced that the four firefighters - a male captain, two male firefighters and a female firefighter - have been suspended for allegedly participating in three instances of consensual sexual encounters with each other while on duty at Station 12 in Hollywood Park. Three of the firefighters are married.

One of the men would stand lookout while the others had sex in the station, Cherry said.

Rumors of the sexual encounters were reported Friday by Station 12's battalion chief, and Cherry said he immediately assembled a team to investigate. Because the information came from within, Cherry said it signaled a code of silence that exists among firefighters is diminishing.

Councilman Rob Fong agreed. He said he has confidence in Cherry and believes it would be unrealistic to expect that no more allegations of misbehavior would be forthcoming.

"The reason that they're surfacing is a sign of change," Fong said.

Cherry said the disappointment he feels in those who break the department's rules is shared by rank-and-file firefighters.

"There are a lot of angry firefighters out there, angry at their brother and sister firefighters," Cherry said.

Brian Rice, president of Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The department's rules don't specifically prohibit sexual activity on the job, but they do say firefighters are expected to "be governed by the ordinary and reasonable rules of behavior observed by law-abiding and self-respecting citizens. No member shall commit any act tending to bring discredit upon the Department or its members."

Council members expressed anger about the latest revelations. Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, whose district includes Station 12, said the decision to allow five firefighters in the previous cases to retain their jobs by signing "last chance" contracts sent the wrong message.

"I'm confident that the most appropriate punishment will be utilized this time," Hammond said.

When the reinstatements became public, Thomas and Cherry said they had determined that the five men allowed to keep their jobs have clean records and were "salvageable" employees. At the time, Fargo said the likelihood that the city would face lengthy, costly appeals if they went through with the firings also played a part in Cherry and Thomas' decision.

This time, Cohn said he expects firefighters will receive stricter punishment. Both he and Fargo said the firefighters in the latest incident should be fired if the allegations are substantiated. Cohn said he believes the council needs to hold Cherry and Thomas accountable for the outcome.

"If the firefighters aren't (fired), there better be a darn good explanation why," Cohn said.

Hammond said the city needs to be ready to face legal challenges with this new round of firefighter cases. "Let's go to court this time," she said. "That's why we have city attorneys."

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