Joyce Terhaar

It’s time for Cal Fire to release disciplinary records

Not since the 2007 sex scandal involving the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District have tales about the behavior of public employees been quite this unseemly.

Drinking on the job. Using a state cellphone to obtain information about a sex club. Sexual harassment. Lying. Using a state cellphone to store hundreds of sexually explicit photographs.

This time it’s a different firefighting agency, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known by the shorthand Cal Fire.

We might never have known about any of this behavior if not for the investigation into the slaying of 26-year-old Sarah Douglas. Yes, this story about a clearly troubled agency culture starts with murder.

Douglas’ boyfriend, former Cal Fire Battalion Chief Orville “Moe” Fleming, stands accused of murder and will be tried next month. When Fleming’s wife told officials a sex tape had been shot at Cal Fire’s Ione Academy, Cal Fire went to the California Highway Patrol to conduct a $2 million investigation.

What we know so far is that the CHP did not find a sex tape in its investigation and that Cal Fire won’t reveal the investigative findings. It did find enough troubling behavior to announce it fired two employees and took disciplinary actions against another 13 in December and January.

At least four of those employees – Michael Ramirez, Bryant Camarena, Michael Roe and Daniel Valenzuela – appealed their discipline, and it was only then that details emerged about what was going on in Ione. The Bee’s Jon Ortiz obtained documents tied to the appeals through a Public Records Act request with the State Personnel Board, which releases documents once an employee appeals their discipline.

But the details of what the other 11 employees did, and how they were disciplined, have remained private to date. It appears that no one other than those involved, CHP investigators and top Cal Fire officials knows what was going on at the Ione Academy, although we anticipate additional files emerging from the personnel board as appeals are filed.

Don’t you think the public should know?

“The state spent $2 million in taxpayer money investigating this wrongdoing. Certainly the public has the right to know what they found,” Bee reporter Sam Stanton said.

Stanton filed a Public Records Act request for the investigative and disciplinary documents. Cal Fire denied the request and said it could keep the documents secret because, among other arguments: “the public interest in not disclosing materials that have only recently been provided to those individuals whose careers have been affected clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosing the documents.”

We disagree. We’ve followed up our efforts to obtain the documents with Sacramento First Amendment attorney Steve Burns. As Burns pointed out to Cal Fire, The Bee won its lawsuit involving a similar situation: Sacramento City firefighters infamously attended a Porn Star Costume Ball in the summer of 2004 and were disciplined amid public uproar. A subsequent investigation found routine cruising of bars, drinking and picking up women while on duty. The Bee requested the disciplinary documents, and though the city was prepared to release them, the firefighters union filed a court motion to stop the release. We sued, and won. We reported the details of firefighter behavior.

Organizational culture doesn’t change easily or without attention. The documents released in the Cal Fire cases being appealed reveal a culture rampant with disturbing behavior.

In the case of former Assistant Chief Michael Ramirez, he was fired for charges that include lying to his bosses, drinking on duty and leaving a fire scene while on his 24-hour rest period (during which he still is on duty and can be recalled) to attend a concert three hours away. Then there’s his response to an incident he witnessed, in which Fleming slapped the buttocks of a female cadet who was stretching during a class training exercise. The Notice of Adverse Action against Ramirez says the unidentified cadet reacted with “complete disbelief.” It does not say how she reacted when Ramirez stood in front of the entire class to say nothing inappropriate had happened.

These incidents are only the ones in the Ramirez case. Doesn’t it make you wonder what happened in the 11 discipline cases that Cal Fire has refused to release?

There’s more in the Ramirez document, and those of the other three who appealed. Sexually inappropriate images in the workplace. Sharing of a link to a sex club. Sexual harassment.

It was Ortiz’s job to sort through the documents for his story in February. “At the end of the day, it’s a public record,” Ortiz said. “I thought it spoke to the culture of what’s going on up there.”

Why protect those who contributed to this culture? Cal Fire says it’s too early to release the documents. We contend it’s well past time.

Call Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar, (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee