Following a series of scandals that have washed over California’s state fire department, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed spending $4.4 million to launch a new unit to investigate personnel messes and prevent them from occurring in the future.
The “Professional Standards Program,” according to the state budget plan the governor unveiled Thursday, would dedicate 14 employees to “addressing personnel investigations and adverse actions” statewide at the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said the department asked Brown for the funding to create the new unit, which would comprise civilian human resources staff, uniformed law enforcement officers and attorneys.
Their focus, Upton said, would be to prevent miscues.
“Hopefully, they’d work themselves out of a job,” she said.
Brown’s proposal follows a dark saga in the department’s history that started when one of its Ione academy instructors stabbed and strangled his mistress on May 1, 2014, in the Elk Grove house they shared. The former battalion chief, Orville “Moe” Fleming, is serving 16 years to life for second-degree murder.
Subsequent allegations of sexual misconduct at the academy prompted Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott to commission a California Highway Patrol probe that eventually led to resignations, dismissals or demotions of 16 employees.
Although Cal Fire and the CHP refused to release investigative records, a series of reports by The Sacramento Bee over the last year exposed allegations and admissions that Cal Fire employees drank on state time, used state property for personal business, stored and shared inappropriate pictures and sex links on their state phones, sexually harassed and assaulted women and cheated to win promotions. One employee admitted to using state property to arrange liaisons with prostitutes.
Several of the punished firefighters are challenging their penalties.
In November, a Bee investigation revealed that Cal Fire administrators were concerned that academy cadets and instructors conspired to boost students’ exam averages by giving questions and answers in advance of tests, padded scores by throwing out questions and allowed some failed tests to be retaken rather than flunk a student out of the academy.
State auditors have also dinged Cal Fire for loose hiring and promotional practices. A recent report from the State Personnel Board said Cal Fire gave “inconsistent and contradictory information” during a separate probe into how two academy fire captains who cheated to gain promotions were demoted and then quickly regained their lost rank. The state’s investigation was launched following Bee inquiries into the promotions.
And in 2009, the state for two years took over Cal Fire’s authority to administer civil service exams because of irregularities.
The troubles prompted Pimlott to enact several internal changes last year, he said, to closely monitor all new hires and promotions, better train managers, improve record keeping and tighten investigation standards.
“We’re making a concerted and renewed effort to focus on the prevention of issues, bad behavior ... to prevent things happening on the back end,” Pimlott said.
Brown’s budget proposal adds dollars and new employees to the effort, and references the department’s troubled past as the rationale for the new program: “Several incidents in recent years have demonstrated the need to strengthen Cal Fire’s ability to address department-wide personnel issues.”
Cal Fire Local 2881 President Mike Lopez could not be reached for comment on the plan, but the Brown proposal to spend millions on the new personnel unit comes while the union is pressing the administration for pay raises.