The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on Wednesday fired two firefighters, accepted the resignation of a third and said it would discipline 13 others in connection with evidence of dishonesty, misuse of state equipment and other policy violations uncovered during a $2 million probe of allegations of misconduct leveled at the fire academy in Ione.
The probe, conducted for the agency by the California Highway Patrol, was initiated in the wake of the May 1 slaying of 26-year-old Sarah Douglas. Authorities have charged her boyfriend, ex-battalion chief Orville “Mo” Fleming, with her slaying. Fleming’s wife leveled accusations after the killing that Fleming and other firefighters had engaged in sex with prostitutes at the academy and said she had seen a tape of such activities.
Cal Fire said the probe unearthed no evidence of a sex tape, a finding echoed by Sacramento County sheriff’s investigators. But the CHP investigation uncovered other abuses that led to disciplinary actions against a total of 16 Cal Fire employees, 15 of them instructors at the academy and the 16th an employee in the field.
“There’s a variety of policy violations, including dishonesty, misuse of state equipment, misuse of state time and compromising the hiring process,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. “None are connected to the allegations that were made.
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“All, though, were discovered as part of the investigation that the CHP has been conducting for us over the last six or seven months into the initial allegations that were made. In that process, other violations were discovered.”
In addition to the three who are no longer employed at Cal Fire, all but one of the 13 employees facing discipline were notified as of Wednesday, Berlant said. The final employee is on vacation and had not yet been reached. All 16 were placed on administrative leave last month as preliminary results of the probe became available.
Discipline for those who remain employed at Cal Fire will range from reductions in pay to suspension to demotion, Berlant said.
The murder charge against Fleming, as well as the accusations leveled by his wife, brought embarrassing scrutiny to Cal Fire as it was entering the height of a challenging fire season last summer, and the agency director said Wednesday that misconduct by workers cannot be allowed.
“The CHP investigation brought to light the actions of a few individuals that violate the public trust,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said in a statement issued Wednesday. “We are pursuing the disciplinary process to the furthest extent allowed. This type of behavior will not be tolerated.
“I would like to extend my appreciation to the California Highway Patrol for the consummate professionalism displayed by their investigators during the course of this investigation.”
Mike Lopez, president of Cal Fire Local 2881, which represents the firefighters, said he could not discuss reasons for the discipline and said each of the employees can appeal.
“My understanding is it has to deal with the possibility of there being discipline for procedural and policy breakdowns in our academy, and each one of those is different from one to the other,” he said. “We’ll allow due process to take its place; we’ll represent our members to the best of our abilities.
“It’s something that no one wants to see at the place of employment where they work, and we’ll do the best we can to make sure the rights of employees are followed through.”
The sensational allegations began with the slaying of Douglas and the subsequent manhunt for Fleming, who hid out for 16 days, spending most of the time hunkered down under some brushy growth not far from the south Sacramento home where Douglas’ body was discovered.
Fleming, 56, has pleaded not guilty in her stabbing and strangulation death. He is being held without bail at the Sacramento County jail and faces his next hearing in Sacramento Superior Court on March 10, when a trial readiness conference is scheduled.
Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.