The State Worker

The State Worker: Cal Fire’s hinky hiring habits

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Ken Pimlott instituted a second demotion of two fire academy instructors that is being challenged.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Ken Pimlott instituted a second demotion of two fire academy instructors that is being challenged. Merced Sun-Star file

More trouble at Cal Fire.

This time a new report from the State Personnel Board says Cal Fire gave “inconsistent and contradictory information” during a probe into how two academy fire captains who cheated to gain promotions got demoted – and then quickly regained their lost rank.

“Given the lack of documentation and the inconsistent and contradictory information provided by Cal Fire, (investigators) cannot verify that either appointment was based on fitness or merit,” the State Personnel Board report says.

Cal Fire says it has demoted the two employees again. It is retraining management. It launched a new watchdog unit on hiring.

“We acknowledge there have been lapses in documentation in our hiring processes,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said. “In light of this, we have implemented new policies and procedures and have increased training for our hiring staff.”

During a sweeping Cal Fire academy investigation last year, Capts. James Michels and Frank Schonig admitted that they won their jobs as instructors after receiving text-messaged interview questions and answers. The investigation also found that employees drank on duty, misused state time, stored and shared inappropriate photos on state cellphones and, in one instance, used state property to hook up with prostitutes, among other things.

The department demoted Michels and Schonig one rank, but specifically kept them eligible to repromote because of their “honesty” during the investigation. Within weeks, that’s exactly what they did. Embarrassed, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott withdrew their single-rank demotions from the academy, then demoted both men two ranks. They and their union are fighting the second punishments.

After an in-depth review, (investigators) cannot verify ... the fire captains were appointed based on merit and fitness because the documentation provided was disjointed and unclear.

From the State Personnel Board’s special investigation report on Cal Fire

Now Personnel Board investigators say Cal Fire can’t explain how hiring managers decided the self-confessed cheaters were better suited for promotions and new jobs than other candidates. One was hired and promoted on the first day of interviews, the report says, while dozens of applicants were still weeks away from their interviews. Cal Fire kept shoddy records on paper instead of using the state’s electronic system that flags unqualified applicants, so it’s not clear how many candidates were qualified.

Simple counting stymied Cal Fire. For one of the two jobs, the department said it received 103 applications and that 43 people were interviewed. Then it said 105 applied and 47 people were “invited to interview,” but it provided limited documentation for just 36. Candidate scoring, a key to hiring impartially, was apparently ignored. For example, an applicant with a score of 27 out of 100 was interviewed while a candidate with a score of 60 was not.

There’s history here. In 2009, the state for two years took over Cal Fire’s authority to administer civil service exams because of irregularities. Then there’s the academy scandal. Last month, a Bee investigation exposed allegations of institutionalized cheating and score padding at the academy.

And now this. What’s next?

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