The State Worker

Cal Fire chief battles bureaucracy

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott talks about his department and the scandal that was sparked by a former employee accused of murdering his girlfriend a year ago that led to revelations of drinking, sexual harassment and other misbehavior at Cal Fire's Ione academy.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott talks about his department and the scandal that was sparked by a former employee accused of murdering his girlfriend a year ago that led to revelations of drinking, sexual harassment and other misbehavior at Cal Fire's Ione academy. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

In his first press interviews after purging management at his department’s Ione cadet academy, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott says he’s rubbing off the tarnish of scandal there that has sullied his department’s image. The boomerang promotions of two managers he disciplined, however, illustrate the challenge he faces managing the sprawling bureaucracy.

A total of 16 Cal Fire firefighters resigned, were fired or demoted in January for, among other things, drinking while on duty, sexually harassing women, using state cellphones to display and distribute porn and, in one case, driving a Cal Fire vehicle to meet prostitutes in Sacramento. The allegations surfaced in a California Highway Patrol investigation that Pimlott requested last year.

Two of the disciplined employees, Justin Chaplin and Frank Schonig, cheated to get hired as fire captains at the academy by getting interview answers in advance, according to public records reviewed by The Sacramento Bee. Pimlott hit them with a 12-month pay cut and temporary demotion.

Make that very temporary, because of this provision in their written punishments:

“You will remain eligible for promotion during this (12-month) time period, but the pay reduction will apply to whatever position you hold for the next 12 months,” according to the terms drawn up for both men.

You can guess what happened. Both men were quickly promoted to fire captain again with Cal Fire units on the coast and in the foothills.

The re-promotions caught Pimlott off-guard. He told The Associated Press this week that he is unhappy that both men so quickly regained the rank he stripped from them. He’d like to bust them down again.

Nearly two months ago, The Bee discovered the promotional boomerangs and asked Cal Fire Deputy Director Janet Upton about the loophole written into the disciplinary terms. Why didn’t the demotions stick?

The two men had cheated in the oral interview process, not the written exam that qualified them for the interviews, and “as such, there were no grounds to remove their list eligibility,” Upton said in a March 20 email.

That’s true, but it only addresses the first part of the state’s hiring and promotion process: getting your name on a list for consideration. What it doesn’t explain, and what Pimlott’s remarks to The Associated Press don’t address, is the second part: Someone in management hired both men, despite what they had done.

Upton said this week that once Pimlott “became aware,” he asked for the Brown administration’s help “in reviewing the whole process.”

As for booting those guys back down, let’s just say their union takes a dim view of double jeopardy.

And imagine you were on the same list as Chaplin or Schonig. Maybe you were interviewed, but they got the jobs. What would you think about “the whole process” and Cal Fire’s management?

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. Sign up for State Worker email alerts at www.sacbee.com/site-services/newsletters.

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