The State Worker

Why a judge said Cal Fire do-over demotions were OK

In case you missed it, this week’s State Worker column looks at the unusual double demotions of three Cal Fire firefighters who cheated on promotional exams for jobs at the department’s Ione Academy.

James Michels, Justin Chaplin, and Frank Schonig all admitted that they received interview questions and answers for three open captain positions, texted by Orville “Moe” Fleming. Cal Fire demoted all three, but then two quickly promoted back to their previous rank (the terms of their punishments allowed it), so Cal Fire demoted all three two ranks below captain. They appealed and the case went to Judge Gregory Brown.

Last week the State Personnel Board approved Brown’s decision that Cal Fire’s punishment, a two-rank demotion from fire captain to fire fighter II, was appropriate given the nature of the infraction and the three employees’ apparent refusal to accept responsibility.

Here are some of the most pertinent lines from the decision.

“Appellants also contend that their scores on the examination prove that they were the superior candidates, and thus, they received no competitive advantage on the test. This contention is rejected. It is axiomatic that cheating on a test automatically invalidates the test results of the cheaters.”

“There is no doubt that Chief Fleming placed Appellants in a no-win situation. Once that occurred, however, they had a duty to take the ethical course of action and report Chief Fleming’s scheme. Instead, they chose to stay silent in order to protect their careers and to secure promotions.”

“Appellants’ claims that they attempted to set aside the contents of the texts were suspiciously similar, and Appellants had a clear motive to put a noble gloss on a situation that was damning to them on its face. ... Finally, the testimony of all three Appellants regarding these assertions seemed rehearsed, somewhat rote, and overly dramatic regarding their supposedly noble intentions.”

“Appellants’ misconduct, i.e., cheating on the promotional examination, was directly related to their jobs. That misconduct came to light in news reports, and thus publicly discredited CalFire. Their misconduct also impaired the public service by undermining the public’s confidence that Cal Fire promotes its employees based on merit rather than favoritism.”

After the column was filed Tuesday, attorney Lina Balciunas Cockrell said it is likely that her clients will either ask the State Personnel Board to reconsider its affirmation of the judge’s decision or take their case to civil court. They have 30 days from last week’s decision for the first option and 90 days for the second.

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