The State Worker

Lawsuit: Cal Fire director ordered grieving families kept ignorant of death benefits

Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. AP

A fired Cal Fire official who lost his job amid scandal says Director Ken Pimlott ordered him to withhold death-benefits information from grieving families of fallen fire pilots, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in a Sacramento court.

The complaint contends that Pimlott and his No. 2, Janet Barentson, knew that state law requires Cal Fire pay death benefits when a contracted fire pilot is killed in the line of duty. At some point, Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez, an administrator at the department’s Ione Academy who also worked with deceased firefighters’ families, discovered the law and brought it up with both superiors, the lawsuit says.

“Defendants Pimlott and Barentson ordered Assistant Chief Ramirez not to disclose the existence of (the law) to any (of the families),” the court filing states, and threatened that “his career would be placed in jeopardy” if he disobeyed. Meanwhile, they ordered Ramirez to continue pressing federal officials to pay benefits, even though it was clear such efforts were “futile,” the lawsuit states.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton responded with a two-sentence email to The Sacramento Bee late Friday: “No. This allegation is not true.”

The case resumes a battle between Ramirez and Pimlott that broke into public view earlier this year after The Bee reported Ione Academy cadets and managers drank on state time, shared interview questions and answers, stored and displayed inappropriate photos on state phones and, in one instance, used state property to consort with prostitutes. In all, 15 Cal Fire employees were fired or demoted.

Ramirez was one of them. A high-ranking academy manager at the time, he was terminated with Pimlott’s approval for allegedly allowing subordinates to drink, misusing state property and failing to act on a case of sexual assault on a cadet. Ramirez is fighting his termination.

Now his allegations against Cal Fire brass are a centerpiece of the death-benefits lawsuit.

“I anticipate they’ll go on a safari of character assassination against Mike,” said Paul Goyette, the attorney representing the families. “Honestly, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t think it’s going to slow us down at all.”

Cal Fire has said that it considered all but two of the 14 pilots killed since 2002 to be federally contracted employees. Goyette said that he has been in talks with the department to pay those survivors, but “I couldn’t get them to agree with any numbers.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages that could total tens of millions of dollars.

State law says Cal Fire pays if a contracted pilot’s family doesn’t receive the federal benefit, “irrespective of whether the department contracts directly with the pilot or contracts with a third party that employs or contracts with pilots.”

But since the U.S. Forest Service and the state cooperate on battling many fires, Cal Fire believes the California law applies “only to pilots contracted directly with Cal Fire to operate state owned planes,” Upton has said, not pilots also working for the federal government.