The State Worker

Cal Fire academy manager fights for his job

Cal Fire has a black eye over revelations of job test cheating, drinking and sexual escapades at its cadet academy in Ione.
Cal Fire has a black eye over revelations of job test cheating, drinking and sexual escapades at its cadet academy in Ione. Associated Press file

The battle ended Monday in a windowless State Personnel Board meeting room on Capitol Mall after 18 witnesses and six days of testimony. Whether former Cal Fire Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez wins back his job after all that depends on how effectively he put Director Ken Pimlott and department leaders on trial.

A former manager at the Ione training academy, Ramirez was the highest ranking of 15 California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection employees fired or demoted earlier this year following a state probe that alleged misdeeds: Inappropriate photos and website links shared on state phones. Sexual harassment and sexual assault. Cheating for career advancement. Escort hookups using property. Drinking on state time.

Ramirez’s termination notice says, among other things, that he drove his state vehicle from a distant fire assignment to attend a Sacramento concert while on 24-hour paid rest-and-recuperation time. He says he had permission and resumed duty well-rested.

The department says Ramirez failed to act when a subordinate officer slapped a female cadet in the rear end. Ramirez said he decided no action was necessary after talking to the officer and the woman, who didn’t want to file a complaint, but agrees now that he could have handled the situation better.

Cal Fire says Ramirez viewed and allowed display of inappropriate photos at work. Ramirez’s attorney Lina Balciunas Cockrell, said allegations over the pictures – one employee’s girlfriend in a bikini, another employee’s pregnant wife in sexy underwear and a back shot of a co-worker’s topless girlfriend – are overblown.

Ramirez drank while on duty at a 2012 academy graduation celebration, Cal Fire said, allowed subordinates to do the same and lied to investigators.

Ramirez said he’s told the truth and that while department policy bans on-duty drinking, the culture encourages it.

His chief witness, retired academy manager Bill Baxter, testified he made cadets take leave to attend grad parties so they weren’t drinking on state time, but a superior stopped the policy.

Ramirez testified that during a 2013 reception at a winery after a firefighter’s funeral, Pimlott ordered uniformed employees to “just take off their jackets” before drinking.

Pimlott didn’t testify. Administrative Law Judge Amy Friedman struck him from the witness list after he filed a declaration that he had no “knowledge of alcoholic beverages being consumed” by on-duty employees at academy functions during his tenure as an academy administrator.

Still, Cockrell said in her closing that, “It’s hypocritical to terminate Mr. Ramirez under the same terms the director himself failed to enforce.”

State attorney Stephen Palazzo countered that Ramirez’s “failure as a supervisor, coupled with the complete lack of honesty and willingness to misuse state resources and time, demonstrates termination is the only appropriate penalty.”

Friedman will issue her decision to the Personnel Board, which will sustain, reject or modify it, probably in October or November.

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