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Dismissed firefighter admits mistakes

His voice broke as he alluded to cleaning out his locker at the firehouse and turning in his badge. Then, former Sacramento Fire Capt. Steven Conti broke into sobs on the witness stand Friday, calling a night that had been rehashed repeatedly during a three-day hearing "the worse mistake of my life."

"I dedicated my life to the department. I didn't mean to intentionally or maliciously embarrass anyone in the department. Most of all, I want to apologize to you," Conti said looking at his wife, who was also in tears.

At the conclusion of the hearing on whether Conti might get his job back, he and other fire captains highlighted a pattern of misconduct that was part of a culture of playing fast and loose with rules.

The administrative hearing leaves a judge with the choice of whether Conti's firing will stand, and the city's Civil Service Commission will affirm or overturn Judge Ann Sarli's decision within three months.

Conti was fired for picking up women at midtown bars while on duty, taking four of them on three fire calls and submitting false reports about events of June 25, 2004.

The termination also was tied to drinking a toast in the back room of Cheaters sports bar, taking a sip of a vodka-spiked energy drink on duty and filing no report after his crew told him they drank Bacardi and Coke while playing dominoes in Station 6 in Oak Park.

Just as the department began to probe a complaint against Conti relating to the night last summer, news broke about another group of firefighters engaged in misconduct at a Porn Star Costume Ball at the Radisson Hotel in early July.

There was further testimony to support defense attorney Etan Rosen's opening statement that Conti's dismissal was political fallout from the porn ball scandal.

Brian Rice, head of Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522, testified that Chief Julius "Joe" Cherry told him that Conti was "salvageable" and would be brought back as a firefighter. Rosen asked why he was not.

"I think the pressure was too great from City Hall," Rice testified.

He said the sensational nature of the allegations and public pressure after the porn star ball forced city officials to make an example of Conti.

"If Conti's actions happened removed from the porn star ball, we wouldn't be sitting here," Rice said.

He also said the incidents revealed to him the lax enforcement of rules within the department.

In recent months, he said, he saw a Polaroid picture of an on-duty Sacramento fire battalion chief with a full wine glass and a wine bottle in the background.

"I saw the photo of a chief officer, and it tells me there's some acceptance there," he said.

In Thursday's testimony, Assistant Chief Leo Baustian said he drank as a captain while on duty on Christmas in 1988 or 1989.

On Friday, retired Capt. Erik Naisbitt testified that he drank on duty while he was a firefighter before 1986.

Things were different in those days, Naisbitt said.

"If a chief walked into quarters and we were doing something that was not appropriate, they would turn and walk away," he said. "We would say, 'You don't want to know.' "

Naisbitt also said he submitted false reports related to a boat and vehicle accident to protect his crew.

A city attorney, Larry Duran, quizzed Naisbitt about testimony that Conti influenced his crew to file false reports.

"Any time my crew is in jeopardy in any way, I try to protect them," he said, reasoning why Conti acted as he did.

Fire Capt. James Doucette also took the stand and said ride-longs were more of a public relations tool than regulated events.

"When we were out and about, to give ride-alongs - it was accepted," he said.

Doucette said he once took his daughter and son-in-law along to a reported fire, and nothing was made of the incident.

Duran questioned Doucette further on the topic of Conti's alleged profane response to a firefighter who told him a woman was complaining about the crew's carousing on June 25.

"We talk like that daily," Doucette said. "I've heard people do that all the time, and I don't go running to the chief."

Conti showed remorse throughout the hearing, admitting to every mistake that the city's attorney listed: cruising for women, riding with one on his lap, going to a house fire and a grass fire and a car fire with women in the engine. The list went on.

"This whole thing snowballed; it never ended," Conti said. "I made poor decisions all the way, and I'm not disputing it."

After Friday's hearing, attorneys agreed to file closing statements in writing by Oct. 11.

Baustian said he hopes the hearing serves to transform the culture of the department.

"That's the one good thing that can come out of this ... that people will realize it's a different time and place now," he said. "Maybe some of those sins of our fathers before will not be thought of as acceptable behavior in the Fire Department."

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