Last February, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Keith Richter unveiled a controversial plan to radically restructure how emergency crews are deployed throughout the county — based largely on what he called an independent consultant’s study.
“It is management’s intent to consider ideas from all the options and recommendations submitted to achieve the optimal deployment needs,” said Richter in February, referring to the $162,000 study by Oregon-based Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI).
But what Richter didn’t discuss was that he served on the advisory board of ESCI, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Virginia. And Richter is on the technical advisory committee of the International Association — which last year recognized him as “Fire Chief of the Year,” a political plum for a leader under fire at home.
Furthermore, Brian J. Brice, a Fire Authority division chief and strategic advisor for the chief, worked as ESCI’s lead consultant on a $10,000 contract in Colorado during 2010 and 2011.
But records show Brice failed to disclose any financial links with ESCI until right after its proposed “standard of cover” plan was announced Feb. 19 by Richter at a press conference. Disclosure statements of economic interest — required annually of designated personnel — are signed under threat of perjury.
These connections, uncovered in interviews and documents obtained by Voice of OC, demonstrate a potential conflict of interest and call into question the study for the new plan — now seemingly dormant.
(The state’s political watchdog has opened an inquiry into the Fire Authority in response to this story. Click here for more details.)
“This has been a concern to me,” said David Shawver, a Stanton councilman who serves on the Fire Authority board. “We need to look at this to make sure there is no favoritism. It would behoove the board to do so.”
Shawver also said that in recent months the Fire Authority board requested a report on its overall contracting and consulting arrangements.
Other Fire Authority board members declined to comment, along with Richter, other agency officials, the International Association, and ESCI executives.
Records of the trail of connections between ESCI and the Fire Authority provide a roadmap of questionable actions, governance/management miscues, and possible violations of state disclosure laws.
These events also are seen as an example of the types of controversies that have roiled the Fire Authority, prompting a management audit completed in May that cited a lack of accountability at all levels of the agency.
In June, Richter retired from the Fire Authority, effective the end of August.
Close Ties With Contractor
Acquired in 2009 to boost the non-profit parent association’s revenues then diminished by the recession, the for-profit ESCI is also nationally seen as a driver of policy changes — like alternative resource deployments that can be tricky operationally, but in political favor for trying to cut costs.
The study ESCI conducted for the Fire Authority proposed creating squad trucks with paramedics to respond to peak-time emergency calls.
Unveiled as the centerpiece of the new standard of cover plan, the proposal instantly created controversy among the 23 partner cities and the agency’s union.
Altering the long-used, current model would reduce rescue quality of care, say firefighters with the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association. It also would increase workloads for some teams. And the proposal’s call for closing two fire stations in high-need Santa Ana was faulted.
Since Richter was appointed chief in 2009, records show Brice often was a point man on multiple contracts with ESCI — like the standard of cover study, which out went to bid in the summer of 2012.
But as the Fire Authority was seeking proposals for that study, emails show Brice on behalf of Richter sent a glowing recommendation to a fire district in Illinois about ESCI, which then won that district’s $5,000 contract.
Calling ESCI “a great company,” Brice wrote the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness on July 26, 2012, that: “The other piece I liked about ESCI is they will be straight with you about their findings and opinions. This is critical in developing a plan that will provide long-term stability.”
A public records request response made recently to Palatine Rural for emails involving the Orange County Fire Authority did not include an email sent July 12, 2012, for Richter, or a representative, to make a recommendation for the Illinois agency’s governing board. Voice of OC secured that email separately.
Asked about the unsent email, Palatine Rural’s fire chief, Hank Clemmensen — who in August 2012 became president of the International Association — could not explain.
Clemmensen acknowledged he told staff in July 2012 to contact the Orange County Fire Authority. But when asked about Richter, he replied: “Who?” claiming he didn’t know him.
Palatine Rural officials say Brice never worked for the district or visited. But records for Brice’s Fire Authority cell phone show it was used for calls last March 29 within a few miles of Palatine Rural’s district, and again on March 30.
Brice’s recommendation to Palatine Rural seemed particularly ironic to those familiar with the upheavals and dealings in Orange County.
In the summer of 2010, records and interviews show, ESCI was engaged by a suburban Denver fire district to help develop a strategic plan — matching Brice as the recommended consultant with the West Metro Fire Protection District in Lakewood.
“He did a lot of work for us,” said Don Lombardi, West Metro’s fire chief, who noted they were extremely pleased. No consultant other than Brice worked on the contract, he added.
But determining the full amount Brice was paid by ESCI under the $10,000 Colorado pact couldn’t be determined because of a record disclosure gap.
Relaxed Disclosure Requirements
The gap was caused by a Fire Authority policy change regarding which employees were required to complete annual statements of economic interest, known as a Form 700.
This change — which eliminated Brice’s job classification at the time, battalion chief, from having to file the economic disclosures — occurred in late 2010, just as Brice began consulting for ESCI, records and interviews show.
Such conflict of interest code alterations require approval by the Orange County Board of Supervisors — which did so in this case on Nov. 23, 2010, said the board’s chief deputy clerk Robin Stieler. She said the disclosure change was effective that day.
Fire Authority assistant clerk Lydia Slivkoff said recently that Brice didn’t need to file a Form 700 for 2010.
On Aug. 18, 2010, the contract between West Metro and ESCI was signed, with records listing a consultant rate of $165 per hour for a 68-hour work plan. The contract also called for Denver trip reimbursement.
West Metro paid $10,000 upfront to ESCI, with records showing there were to be monthly billings reflecting time spent on the contract. The contract does not specify Brice — or anyone else — by name.
However, Lombardi said there were no billings from ESCI — which could have reflected Brice’s monthly hours — and his agency didn’t push for any.
“We were moving along,” said Lombardi, adding Brice “did a ton for us.”
Brice also made two trips to Denver — the first at the contract’s inception cost nearly $2,000 — with the second in September 2011, records show.
In May 2011, a Brice email shows $4,150 still was available for services. Lombardi says he asked to get the remaining balance.
Those funds were for consulting services that summer and Brice’s second Denver trip, Lombardi added, as West Metro wasn’t billed separately as before.
On Jan. 13, 2012, Brice was promoted to division chief, a position where he was required to file the economic disclosure form. But Brice’s form — which Stieler says covers the 2011 calendar year — filed on Jan. 18, 2012, claims no reportable economic interest.
Then on Feb. 26 of this year — a week after Richter released the controversial ESCI study — records show Brice filed an amended Form 700 for 2011 — claiming $500 to $1,000 in “salary” from ESCI.
Given the 2010 window when Brice didn’t have to report outside income, his total ESCI compensation for the West Metro project couldn’t be determined.
Privately, some Fire Authority officials speculate that Brice allegedly could have done the ESCI work for West Metro on Orange County Fire Authority time.
That would mean the Orange County Fire Authority financially underwrote the bulk of the Colorado study — with ESCI keeping West Metro funds for its arrangement with its parent, the international association. For communications with West Metro, emails show Brice listed his Orange County Fire Authority cell phone.
After a public records request on June 19, Sherry Wentz, the Fire Authority’s clerk, has not made Brice’s cell phone records for 2010 and 2011 available, claiming record recovery delays.
‘Kissing Up to the Chief’
After Brice’s amended disclosure on ESCI, the firefighter union in March made copies of the document and various emails available to the Fire Authority’s board.
But emails indicate that as early as 2012 Brice’s links to ESCI came to the fore at the Fire Authority, with concerns not aggressively pursued.
For instance, on the afternoon of July 25, 2012, Cliff Bramlette, a Fire Authority battalion chief in strategic services, wrote an email to executive staff about Brice’s involvement in recommending ESCI to the Illinois district. At that time, the Orange County Fire Authority was seeking bids for the standard of cover study.
“Just a point of contention here,” Bramlette wrote. “We are in the process of doing our own [study] and we might very well be choosing ESCI. Could this be construed as being a bias in this process?…just thinking out loud.”
This prompted an email exchange the next day.
“About time you did some work,” wrote Kris Concepcion — now a division chief for northern Fire Authority cities — at 7:21 a.m to Brice.
A minute later, Brice responded: “Kissing up to the chief is work…”
Then a minute later, Concepcion emailed: “Most folks around here think it’s an avocation and calling for you…shameless!!!”
Brice immediately replied: “Whatever.”
And Brice’s email response to Bramlette’s bias question came in one word: “Handled.”
Then in November 2012, emails show an anonymous letter was sent to board members alleging irregularities with ESCI.
The evening before the executive committee awarded the contract to ESCI on Nov. 15, 2012, the board chair sent the anonymous letter to Richter, apologizing for the late notice.
The anonymous letter described Brice’s ESCI work, while claiming “many conflicts” involving Fire Authority executive staff.
Brice, Richter and the deputy fire chief [then Ron Blaul] “have had lunches/dinners etc with ESCI during the [bidding process],” the letter said
Such chummy relations — including night social activity with ESCI officials at the International Association’s annual meeting in August 2012 in Denver — also are reflected in other emails the firefighters union provided board members last March.
The Fire Authority executives “certainly could have provided ESCI with information…that was not provided to the other bidders,” the letter said.
ESCI’s proposal “was $40,000 higher than the next bid,” the letter claimed, adding Fire Authority staff worked “with ESCI to go through their proposal to take off items to get the price down.”
“Was this courtesy provided to the other bidders?” the letter asked.
The two other firms in the final list were: TriData Division of Systems Planning Corp. of Arlington, Va., and Citygate Associates of Folsom. Officials from both firms said they were not asked or permitted to revise their bids.
Citygate’s low bid was $139,943. But selecting the lowest bid wasn’t required.
TriData’s bid was $162,770 — which was $851 more than ESCI’s $161,919 winning bid, says the Fire Authority’s Nov. 15, 2012, report.
Philip Schaenman, TriData’s president, said that if a competing bidder was allowed to revise a bid before its selection he would consider that “unethical if not illegal.”
The fact ESCI’s bid was just under TriData’s supports the anonymous letter’s assertion of a bid revision below “the next bid.”
The day after ESCI was awarded the contract, Blaul [who retired in May 2013] wrote Brice an email, saying:
“I know you know, and I assume your Form 700 reflects the work. There isn’t a problem with the work, but it is necessary to have it disclosed. Don’t read anything into this email except a reminder on the requirement. Wouldn’t want you to be caught short on an oversight.”
Two minutes later, Brice emailed: “The last time I did paid work for them was January 2011. I will follow up on the 700 Form.”
But records show no follow up occurred until after the proposal controversy 15 months later — even though Brice’s email to Blaul in November 2012 contradicted his January 2012 filing of nothing to claim for 2011.
About a week ago, Brice was put on the top list for promotion to assistant chief — when such a position opens up, which could be soon given possible departures.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.