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Close watch on sex probe

Against a backdrop of scandal and sizzling allegations, City Hall is cranking up its disciplinary process in the cases of four Sacramento firefighters accused of engaging in group sex while on duty at Station 12.

So far, a dozen witnesses have been interviewed in the investigation into incidents of consensual sex involving three men and a woman, according to Fire Chief Julius "Joe" Cherry.

Disciplining any public employee is a formal and deliberate procedure - and usually a highly confidential one. But not this time.

The Station 12 allegations are the latest high-profile revelation regarding sex, alcohol and other misconduct within the Sacramento Fire Department.

Public outcry and political pressure have combined to shine a new spotlight on the city's system for dealing with employee misconduct.

"It's much more of a public process than the personnel process is normally," said Mayor Heather Fargo. "Because of that, there's more at stake."

The mayor and City Council invited some of that public scrutiny at a press conference July 3 when they revealed that on-duty firefighters took fire engines to an event billed as a Porn Star Costume Ball. In the following weeks, other revelations of misconduct hit the headlines, including drinking on duty and using fire engines to cruise bars and give joy rides to women.

The allegations spurred an extensive investigation, which culminated Oct. 12 when the city announced that nine firefighters were slated for termination and an additional 15 were disciplined.

Two days later, five of those terminations were quietly rescinded.

"The city made a mistake" in announcing the firings before the disciplinary process was completed, said Martha West, a professor of labor law at the University of California, Davis.

"Usually termination comes at the end of a long sequence of discipline."

West called dismissal the "capital punishment of public sector discipline."

She added that arbitrators often revoke terminations when the employee's prior record is clean.

That was the case for the five whose terminations were rescinded in October, according to Cherry. Instead of being fired, they eventually received 240-hour suspensions and "last-chance contracts" that place them on probation for five years.

In City Hall, the discipline of employees is overseen by Dee Contreras, director of labor relations. She said the city has a strong case against the four firefighters from Station 12.

"No employer ever pays you to have sex on duty," she said.

"Sex on duty is a fireable offense, in my opinion."

Contreras outlined a formal discipline process that is basically the same for every city worker, regardless of the job or the allegations.

The process begins with a report of misconduct. A fact-finding investigation begins, with interviews of witnesses and the employee.

Then, Contreras and her staff decide whether there is enough evidence to build a case and, if so, what discipline would be appropriate.

Levels of punishment range from a letter of reprimand to dismissal.

Next, an official notice of the intended discipline is sent to the employee. That letter "is written in the most strident language possible," Contreras said.

The employee has five days to request a review. During that review, the employee and a union representative may try to negotiate a different outcome.

"We can settle a case at any point," according to Contreras.

If no settlement is reached, the city sends a final letter stating what the discipline will be. At that point, the employee has 15 days to appeal to the city's Civil Service Board, a commission appointed by the mayor.

Typically, the matter then goes to a hearing officer - an arbitrator or an administrative law judge - who hears testimony, reviews evidence, listens to arguments from both sides, and makes a tentative decision. The final decision is up to the Civil Service Board.

An employee who disagrees with that finding can take the matter to civil court.

One issue the city no doubt will face, as it moves forward against the firefighters accused of group sex, is whether they can be disciplined more harshly than those involved in the Porn Star Ball.

As public outrage builds, council members acknowledged, there is pressure to punish new revelations of misconduct more harshly.

Councilman Rob Fong said he and his colleagues must let the discipline process takes its course and not overreact.

"It's like parents who get progressively madder and madder at their children, until finally some relatively minor transgression can be the last straw," Fong said.

"To be fair, we have to consider each case individually - everyone deserves their day in court.

"In the end, it's not just a matter of disciplining people when there are transgressions. We need more than the deterrent effect. We need to be a little more forward-thinking and say: What are the breakdowns in the department that allowed these transgressions to exist? And then we have to have the will to make changes."

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