A year after his department was plunged into scandal, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Monday he’s put out a stern word to longtime employees and fresh-faced cadets alike that the embarrassing sins of the recent past are intolerable.
When he learned of employees’ misdeeds, Pimlott said, “I was angry. I was disappointed.” It was the first interview he has given The Sacramento Bee since he fired two employees and disciplined 13 others in January for allegations that include cheating on tests, on-duty drinking, inappropriate touching of women and contacting prostitutes with state cellphones.
Now, just a few days after the one-year anniversary of the killing that sparked it all, Pimlott believes the department has pivoted and is moving on.
All Cal Fire employees have been ordered to reread the department’s code of conduct, its mission, vision and values statement, and its Equal Employment Opportunity policy – including what constitutes inappropriate workplace behavior. Then they must sign a document certifying they have read and understand the material.
“Every employee understands what the requirements are as department employees and as public servants,” Pimlott said. “And what my expectations are.”
The director said he has addressed the scandal in high-level meetings, gatherings with entry-level firefighters and in departmentwide memos. He’s highlighted his personal disappointment and issued a professional warning that a similar fate awaits employees who misbehave.
“In messages and memos that came from me, I’ll tell you straight up, I put in every one (The Bee’s) ... articles about this,” Pimlott said. “I’ve said, ‘Here’s what happens when we have bad behavior.’”
The department has taken repeated hits in the media since the May 1, 2014, killing of 26-year-old Sarah June Douglas in the south Sacramento house she shared with her boyfriend, Orville “Moe” Fleming.
Authorities suspected Fleming, at the time a Cal Fire battalion chief and Ione academy instructor, had killed Douglas. He eluded a statewide manhunt for more than two weeks before he was arrested and charged with murder. Fleming was fired for failing to show up for work. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in Sacramento.
The case led to allegations of a video shot at the academy with Fleming and other firefighters having sex with prostitutes. Pimlott said he decided to commission the California Highway Patrol to investigate the allegations, then “purposefully distanced myself” until the probe was nearly finished.
No credible evidence of a sex tape surfaced, but the investigation, according to employee disciplinary records obtained by The Sacramento Bee, cast more than a dozen managers and an untold number of Cal Fire cadets in an unfavorable light for conducting themselves like partying fraternity brothers.
Pimlott said he personally “knew some of the individuals” he disciplined but declined to comment further, other than to say that “all of my actions were based on the findings of the investigation.”
He also declined to state whether any cadets were disciplined. Disciplinary records obtained by The Bee reference on-the-job boozing by at least four graduating cadet classes, but none of the documents indicate any of the cadets were demoted, terminated or otherwise suffered for violating Cal Fire’s ban on drinking on the clock. The available disciplinary documents pertain only to supervisors.
“I’ve been very firm from the beginning that I’m not going to share actions” against Cal Fire personnel, Pimlott said.
Asked whether the academy has been an incubator for excessive drinking among entry-level employees, Pimlott said that events in Ione were the exception, not the rule.
Cal Fire employees, he said, are “absolutely” prepared to fight fires as California enters its fourth drought-stricken fire season.
Still, as the bits and pieces of the CHP investigation filtered in late last year, Pimlott said he was “repulsed.”
But Pimlott said he meted out discipline based on the CHP findings and not his personal relationship with any of the employees. For example, he fired Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez, whose wedding Pimlott had officiated.
Cal Fire and CHP have both refused to release the CHP report, but by mid-January, one manager had resigned, Ramirez and another manager were fired, and 13 others were hit with pay cuts, demotions and unpaid suspensions. The Bee learned the details of the allegations against the 15 disciplined employees through a Public Records Act request.
Seven of those disciplined employees have challenged the actions taken against them. A decision on those cases could be several months away.
Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.