The State Worker

Cheating firefighters lose Cal Fire demotion appeals

Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, at Cal Fire headquarters in Sacramento.
Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, at Cal Fire headquarters in Sacramento. Associated Press file

The tense relationship between Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott and the union representing about 6,500 state firefighters he manages just got worse.

This time the twist of the labor-relations screw came last week from a State Personnel Board ruling on an unusual case: Three Cal Fire captains who were demoted one rank by Director Ken Pimlott for cheating on an oral exam, then later restored to their former ranks so that they could again be demoted two ranks.

James Michels, Frank Schonig and Justin Chaplin admitted that Orville “Moe” Fleming had sent them questions and answers they would be asked in an interview for academy fire captain. Fleming was on the hiring panel and – surprise – all three won jobs with scores that outdistanced those of four other candidates by a wide margin, according to the personnel board’s documents.

Soon after, Fleming was arrested and convicted of the May 1, 2014, murder of his mistress. Fallout from the crime sparked an academy investigation that, among other things, revealed the test texts. Pimlott demoted all three one rank.

Then two of them quickly became fire captains again, in keeping with written disciplinary terms that allowed all three to “remain eligible for promotion” because they displayed “honesty” with investigators.

After The Bee asked questions about the promotions last year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection erased the Jan. 31, 2015, demotions and gave the three men a total $1,500 to make up for wages lost. Then it demoted them two ranks as of June 1, 2015, and froze their ability to be promoted for a certain time.

The demotion/promotion/demotion story pushed Cal Fire Local 2881 President Mike Lopez to criticize Pimlott’s “weak leadership” and conclude the he buckled under pressure to rescind the promotions and impose new punishments. Lopez also said the case illegally set a precedent that state employees could be punished twice for a single transgression.

Two administrative law judges disagreed. Then last week the five-member Personnel Board stood by a judge’s decision that the second demotions were legal.

Meanwhile, Cal Fire lobbied Gov. Jerry Brown for money to hire staff dedicated to finding and preventing personnel messes. The governor has proposed $4.4 million in next year’s budget to pay 14 civilian human resources staff, uniformed law enforcement officers and attorneys for the new program.

The union says the project will build a de facto internal affairs unit with incentive to justify their jobs by finding problems and inflating them. Cal Fire has said that the unit’s emphasis will be prevention, not prosecution.

All the while, the local has been prodding the Brown administration for pay raises, although it’s under contract until next year – and talking salary bumps with Brown is like oiling a bicycle chain with sand.

Which may be why Lopez was a bit more calm Tuesday when asked about the board decision. “We’re disappointed,” he said, noting that the case took nearly a year to resolve. “Now all we want to do is move on.”

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