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Official: Fire probe hindered

Only after about 50 interviews with 36 people in an investigation that was "like pulling teeth" did Sacramento fire officials get a complete picture of one night of cruising bars and picking up women, an assistant fire chief testified Thursday.

Events of June 25, 2004 - cruising for women, fighting fires with the women riding in the engine and attempting to cover it up - led to the firing of ex-Sacramento Fire Capt. Steven Conti, who is enduring a tense public hearing in hopes of getting his job back.

Fifteen others were disciplined as a result of misconduct that night, according to testimony on the second day of the administrative hearing.

The first witness to appear on Conti's behalf - a fire captain who was given five shifts of leave in October for giving women a joy ride on June 25 - testified Thursday.

Capt. Ed Modeste said he was at the Zebra Club by coincidence that night and gave two women a ride around the block.

Modeste also said he had been close friends with Conti for more than a decade.

City Attorney Larry Duran asked if Modeste was aware of each aspect of Conti's misconduct, to which Modeste responded with a quiet, "No, I was not aware."

Modeste maintained that Conti was one of the city's best employees. "I think it's our loss that we lost him," he said.

The captain also bolstered an argument offered by defense attorneys during opening statements that Conti was dismissed for political reasons.

He testified that a departmental interview about the night of June 25 was "low-key," but interviews about the night became more contentious after news broke in July of firefighters attending a Porn Star Ball at the Radisson Hotel. "The atmosphere changed ... it was more confrontational. To me, it seemed everything went downhill and we were all balled together," he said.

Defense attorneys also allege that Conti was merely a product of a rules-be-darned environment in the fire department, which was supported when Assistant Fire Chief Leo Baustian admitted to drinking on duty.

Modeste also said that alcohol traditionally was involved in holiday toasts at fire stations.

Conti testified Wednesday that the department's zero-tolerance alcohol policy was seldom enforced, and "family friends, kids, girlfriends and mistresses" were regularly given ride-alongs in fire engines.

Baustian testified Thursday that during the investigation into Conti's behavior only one person was forthcoming, while the others ranged from guarded to dishonest. He said investigators also had to look into threats against one crew member who testified against Conti.

City labor relations director Dee Contreras testified that Conti had three departmental hearings before admitting he had lied in an initial e-mail that said the women he picked up were "family friends." Conti's "response to questions about his conduct was an effort to hide, conceal and obstruct the investigative process," Contreras said.

She said Conti's leadership in taking women out on fire calls was "beyond dumb, it's unfathomable."

"The typical fire response is to evacuate the public from the area, not bring them in to watch you do your duty," she said.

On Wednesday, Conti and two members of his crew who were subpoenaed recounted the night's events: Just after dark, the crew left the fire station to respond to a call and "went for a putt" - Conti's term for cruising. They picked up four women at Ink bar and restaurant in midtown and took them 15 blocks to the Zebra Club. From there, they cruised around the block with six women - one on Conti's lap.

At the Zebra Club, a bystander complained of the carousing to crew members and later filed a complaint that sparked the investigation. One crew member said Conti dismissed the complaint in a derogatory manner.

Still, Conti's crew left the bar with four women who had been at bars and returned to Station 6 in Oak Park. From there, they sped with lights flashing and sirens blaring to three fire calls before returning the women to Ink.

The hearing at 560 J St. is expected to continue at 10 a.m. today. Administrative law Judge Ann Sarli is expected to issue a decision that will be considered by the city's Civil Service Commission within 90 days.

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