The State Worker

Cal Fire and disciplined Academy employees settle dispute

The interior of Bg’s bar at Mel’s and Faye’s Diner in Jackson, where some Cal Fire employees allegedly drank while on duty during cadet graduation parties.
The interior of Bg’s bar at Mel’s and Faye’s Diner in Jackson, where some Cal Fire employees allegedly drank while on duty during cadet graduation parties. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Three former Cal Fire Academy managers named in a scandal that rocked the department have settled their disciplinary appeal cases. Meanwhile, a judge rejected a request by three other former employees to throw out the actions taken against them.

Salvador Bruno, Cole Periera and Michael Roe agreed to terms late Wednesday rather than go into a formal hearing before a State Personnel Board administrative law judge. The specifics have not yet been publicly disclosed.

Earlier this year, Cal Fire demoted all three men from fire captain to fire apparatus operator for allegedly drinking while on duty at cadet graduation celebrations and allowing subordinates to do the same.

The allegations against them surfaced during a California Highway Patrol investigation that found that Ione Academy employees had consumed alcohol on state time, stored and shared inappropriate photos and sex website links on state cellphones, assaulted women, misused state vehicles, disobeyed orders and made false statements to investigators. In one instance, a manager admitted to using a state vehicle to meet prostitutes in Sacramento.

In a related case, three other former Academy employees lost their requests for a Personnel Board judge to revoke demotion notices they received.

Justin Chaplin, James Michels and Frank Schonig lost their temporary fire captain jobs at the academy for receiving questions and answers for promotional interview questions. They also received a year-long 5 percent pay cut when they returned to their previous fire apparatus engineer rank in February. The disciplinary notices’ language, however, specifically allowed them to promote earlier.

Shortly after their February demotions, Chaplin and Schonig promoted back to fire captain positions elsewhere in the state, although their 5 percent pay cut remained in place. Michels did not promote.

After The Sacramento Bee broke the story, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said the discipline against the three men was insufficient. The department then withdrew its disciplinary actions, paid all three men back wages and benefits, and then demoted them to firefighter II, one rank below fire apparatus engineer.

In their request to dismiss their second demotions, Chaplin, Schonig and Michels said they had been illegally punished twice for a single offense. They also said that no new facts merited the new, harsher demotions and that Cal Fire was responding to public pressure generated by negative media coverage.

Last week, Judge Douglas Purdy sided with Cal Fire. The department had correctly withdrawn the first discipline before administering the second, Purdy ruled, and there were new details in the new disciplinary record that weren’t in the first.

As for media pressure, Purdy wrote:

(Chaplin, Michels and Schonig) cite no statute, regulation, case law, or other authority that would prohibit (Cal Fire) from taking negative publicity into account when assessing penalties. To the contrary, when determining the appropriate penalty, the SPB often considers whether an employee’s conduct, if known to the public, could discredit the appointing power.

Barring a settlement, the consolidated cases will go to a full hearing late this year or in early 2016.

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