The State Worker

Union blasts Cal Fire chief’s leadership

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott speaks to reporters at a 2011 press conference.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott speaks to reporters at a 2011 press conference. Sacramento Bee file

For more than a year, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott managed to stay above a disturbing scandal that started with a homicide and then damaged or ended the careers of 16 department employees.

That changed this week with an angry members-only union letter obtained by The Sacramento Bee that contends Pimlott has known more than he’s publicly acknowledged about the scandal. The letter by Cal Fire Local 2881 President Mike Lopez also says Pimlott has “crumbled” under criticism of how the department has handled the affair and has unjustly disciplined three employees a second time.

Now, Lopez wrote, the director faces a crisis of confidence among the rank and file.

“I realize that there is growing dissatisfaction within the membership over the leadership of Director Ken Pimlott,” Lopez wrote. “I recognize and respect the sources.”

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection media relations office did not respond to a request for an interview with Pimlott. Instead, department spokesman Daniel Berlant emailed a statement: “We have taken steps to ensure that these employees were disciplined appropriately. Because this is a disciplinary matter, we cannot comment further but are working with CalHR to prevent similar occurrences in the future.”

In a telephone interview, Lopez said he believes Pimlott has tried to both distance himself from the Ione scandal and subsequent disciplinary decisions while still projecting the image that he is on top of Cal Fire’s business.

“Either he has control of his department or he doesn’t,” Lopez said.

Cal Fire has endured heavy scrutiny since the May 1, 2014, death of Sarah June Douglas in a south Sacramento home she shared with her boyfriend, Cal Fire Academy instructor Moe Fleming.

Fleming, who was fired shortly after Douglas’ death for failing to show up to work, is charged with the crime and has pleaded not guilty.

Events following the murder led to a sweeping investigation of activities at the academy that found managers at the training facility cheated on tests, drank on duty, sexually harassed women and used state equipment to seek prostitutes and store and display pornography, according to public records obtained by The Bee.

Pimlott said he was personally involved in the actions taken against the employees who lost their jobs or were disciplined, including three employees accused of receiving texts from Fleming that contained interview questions and answers for temporary captain jobs at the academy. All three men were hired into the academy positions.

What happened next is at the center of the blowup between Local 2881 and Pimlott.

After the investigation, the three were removed and returned to their former jobs as fire apparatus operators. Their pay also was cut for one year.

However, the three employees were allowed to remain eligible to apply for other captain positions in the department. The Bee reported that two of the three were quickly promoted back up with other units to permanent jobs, although their pay cuts remain in place.

The third demoted employee, Lopez said this week, has not sought a promotion.

In an interview with The Associated Press two weeks ago, Pimlott said he was surprised that the two employees had regained their rank so quickly and would work to undo the promotions.

Lopez says that Pimlott shouldn’t have been surprised at all.

“He was heavily involved” in the punishment terms for the three employees, Lopez said, noting that Pimlott’s deputy, Clare Frank, signed the official disciplinary paperwork in January. Frank has since retired and could not be reached for comment.

“This was a decision that came from the top” because the scandal was so serious and high-profile, Lopez said. “It couldn’t have come below that.”

Lopez’s letter describes what happened after media questions about the original discipline.

“On his own, the director placed the firefighters on administrative leave, essentially paying them to stay home until he could re-open their cases and demote them to a more severe penalty, Permanent Firefighter II. He essentially decided he wanted a second bite at the apple and bent to the whims of public opinion. To the disciplined firefighters and the membership, it is inconsistent and disregards the process already in place.”

The union plans to quickly appeal the actions, arguing that the employees can’t be disciplined twice for the same offense.

Lopez also believes that the managers who decided to hire the two disciplined firefighters knew about their recent history. Those managers, Lopez said, answer to Pimlott.

In the letter to members, Lopez wrote, “This is the kind of leadership that makes everyone question whether or not the director has the courage to stand by his own decisions ... and whether or not his men and women can take him at his word.”

During the interview, Lopez stopped short of calling for Pimlott’s job, but he did say the director’s reaction to the scandal and the perception that he is weak adds to a list of demoralizing concerns among union members.

Local 2881 is in the midst of pitching a pay raise to Gov. Jerry Brown, and has said publicly that the department is understaffed. Lopez has said his members are worn out from longer fire seasons intensified by years of drought.

“And now the academy investigation and this (controversy over discipline). We’re at a crossroads,” Lopez said. “Good strong leadership, that’s what we need.”