In the executive wing of the Orange County Fire Authority in Irvine, the afternoon mail call could be a bittersweet experience.
There was joy hearing the enthusiasm of the happy, young mailmen -- who started as Goodwill contract employees with challenges -- now working as full-time employees among elite firefighters.
But on occasion in recent years, some staff would cringe when one of the mailmen innocently would call out: "Chief, your wine is here."
At the Fire Authority, General Order Number 3 reads as follows: No intoxicating beverages are allowed. It is a widespread standard in fire departments, to ensure crews always are alert. Violations can mean severe punishment or termination.
But sources say the rule was overlooked for boxed wine deliveries to Fire Chief Keith Richter, who is retiring Aug. 29 after a year of mounting criticism regarding his management of the independent agency where 1,100 firefighters serve 1.8 million residents in 23 cities countywide.
Richter is known as a wine connoisseur, as are some of his inner circle -- who sources say used their shared love of the grape to ingratiate themselves with the chief, who came aboard in 2009.
And though there is no evidence that Richter or any other top official drank alcohol while on duty, many inside the Fire Authority saw the wine deliveries as a breakdown in authority and representative of what they describe as a leadership vacuum under Richter.
In May, a management audit commissioned to examine Richter’s performance found "a lack of accountability" at all levels of the Fire Authority. The audit, done by Costa Mesa-based Management Partners Inc., cited ineffective leadership, poor morale and mishandling of discipline and staffing.
Interviews and records uncovered since the audit's release go further in showing a flawed culture with repeated personnel issues, unbridled retaliatory actions, and fundamental failures in the chain of command.
Advocates of the Fire Authority who are deeply disturbed about how managers handled the incidents -- fearing such practices may continue even thought Richter is departing. They cited the following cases, the details of which were culled from agency records, interviews, and sources speaking privately to avoid retaliation:
- A veteran firefighter was caught last year with a case of beer in the refrigerator of a Santa Ana fire station, but his penalty was reduced by top agency officials.
- A series of incidents in which sexual harassment and other improper behaviors weren't aggressively pursued -- with managers allegedly fostering an atmosphere where such activity was permitted or ignored.
- A new human resources director was hired last year without following accepted procedures, leading to a new search and the resignation of the questionably selected individual this spring.
- In May, narcotic drugs were reported stolen from a Santa Ana home after a firefighter engine response. Interviews reveal the incident wasn’t promptly reported to police and might not have been properly handled internally.
Richter, Craig Kinoshita, the deputy chief who oversees human resources, as well as members of the Fire Authority's 25-person board of directors all refused interviews through Arianna Barrios, the agency's outside media consultant.
After allegations were relayed to Barrios, Eugene J. “Gene” Hernandez -- the newly appointed vice chairman of the board, who also is a Yorba Linda City Councilman -- wrote in a statement:
“The OCFA board is united in a zero tolerance stance when it comes to inappropriate behavior or harassment of any kind. Maintaining the integrity of the organization is a priority for the board.”
Jeremy Hammond, the Fire Authority’s new director of human relations, issued a statement, stating:
“I am committed to providing a workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination. I am reviewing past investigations to ensure that they were properly handled and document. Any new allegations will be thoroughly investigated.”
Beer in the Firehouse
Sources point to an incident involving alcohol at a Santa Ana fire station on Memorial Day weekend 2013 as indicative of the lax discipline cited in the Management Partners audit.
The battalion commander in charge of the Santa Ana division discovered a case of beer in a refrigerator at Station 71 in West Floral Park. This set off a chain of events whereby the beer was seized, checks were made to ensure no one on duty had indulged, and an inquiry initiated.
But when it came time to mete out punishment, sources say, the penalty was reduced by Assistant Chief Dave Thomas.Thomas had been chief of the Santa Ana Fire Department until 2012, when the city dissolved the department and contracted with the Fire Authority as a remedy for a massive budget deficit.
The consequence for the long-time firefighter -- who admitted the offense, while denying knowledge of an alcohol prohibition -- was a reprimand letter, not a two-day loss of pay as originally recommended, sources say.
Attempts to reach Thomas for comment were unsuccessful.
Sex on the Job?
In addition to the alcohol-related infractions, sources say allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior and innuendo weren’t properly addressed.
As an example, a battalion chief was caught engaging in a sex act with a female Fire Authority employee in an executive wing office, according to sources. Ultimately, he was transferred to a job with significant authority. The same battalion chief allegedly allowed his secretary frequently to skip out on work.
After being assigned to Santa Ana in May, a high-ranking officer was penalized for offensive language to a half-dozen crew members.
During his introductory rounds, Battalion Chief Kelly Zimmerman allegedly told a crew to be sure to do what he ordered, or he would “butt fuck their wives,” say sources with direct knowledge of the event.
A stunned captain, who is active in the union and was present, asked Zimmerman to repeat his remarks, sources say, and Zimmerman did.
Sources say Zimmerman’s punishment was two days loss of pay, which was seen as too light by some officials aware of the incident.
When Zimmerman was asked about the allegation, he said, “I’m the wrong person to talk on that.” He declined comment, referring inquiries to Barrios, who also declined comment.
Last winter, the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association provided the Fire Authority board with a binder of letters, emails, and documents purporting grievances and offenses cited as examples of Richter’s failed leadership.
The records involved cases the union cited as an example of how the rank-and-file may be held to one standard, but management to another.
A letter in the union dossier alleged multiple irregularities in the Fire Authority’s public information office [PIO] -- involving its then chief, Kris Concepcion, now division chief in northern cities. The letter stated:
“OCFA employee [Lynnette Round] in the PIO’s office is getting paid for full time hours and working part time hours. Concepcion is aware. Why the different treatment? [Potential inappropriate relationship with Round].”
In an interview with a Voice of OC reporter, Concepcion vehemently denied any inappropriate relationship with Round, while saying there were no irregularities involving her pay or work hours.
“That is extremely offensive to me, and to my wife of almost 27 years,” said Concepcion.
Fire Authority officials “put him through the ringer” about the allegations, Concepcion said, but determined they were “unfounded.”
Asked if he considered legal action, Concepcion at first said: “No. I’m a manager. I need to take it.” Then shortly thereafter, he said he and his wife did think about contacting an attorney.
Effective last month, Round resigned from the Fire Authority, where she worked nearly a decade. Now a spokeswoman at Cal Fire, she didn’t couldn’t be reached for comment.
The union dossier also alleged Concepcion was involved in offensive behavior directed at Captain Jon Muir, then a public affairs officer.
In the winter of 2013, the union alleged Concepcion showed a photo of a disrobed woman on his Fire Authority cell phone to Muir, who knew the woman from high school.
There are divergent views between the union documents and Concepcion’s statements about events.
In the union letter under the title “Kris Concepcion,” it states: “Showed Muir pictures of nude women on his department cellular phone. Concepcion called Muir during a work day and had him speak with the female from the nude picture.”
Fire Authority officials have been told by Concepcion the events occurred on a fire call.
In an interview, Concepcion denied showing any nude photo to Muir, but acknowledged showing a photo on his work cell phone of a woman’s face only, saying he covered her body with his thumb on the screen.
Concepcion said he blocked the view of her body because she was wearing a bikini and he didn’t want to be “disrespectful.” And Muir asked to see the picture, said Concepcion, who noted he didn’t mean to harass Muir.
Initially in the interview with Voice of OC, Concepcion said he had deleted the photo from the cell phone. Then later, he said he provided the phone with the photo to his superiors.
“The picture was on there, if they found it,” he said.
The union letter also says Muir was “falsely accused of padding his time slip.” Sources familiar with the situation said Muir's timecards and payments were done appropriately.
After five months in the public information office, Muir was sent back to the field, Concepcion said, after disagreements over responding to rescue incidents. When reached at a fire station in Stanton, Muir declined to talk, referring questions to the union.
Dave Rose, president of the union, declined to answer a list of written questions about the Muir and Round cases or discuss the allegations.
In June, union spokesman Joe Kerr said the allegations would be referred to a Human Resoures Committee of the Fire Authority’s board, where the union expected a full discussion of the issues.
But that committee only had its first meeting on Aug. 5.
In a statement, Stanton City Councilman David Shawver, the newly appointed OCFA committee chairman, said; “My colleagues and I are committed to ensuring that accountability is restored and policy is followed. We are working closely with [Hammond] to provide the tools and support he needs to best serve all employees.”
Confidentially, several Fire Authority officials alleged that previous expressions of concern about such human relations allegations fell on deaf ears. In particular, they pointed to deputy fire chief Kinoshita, who is in charge of human resources and a member of Richter’s wine circle.
For instance, sources say that late last year, Shawver arranged for about a half-dozen employees to come to Kinoshita’s annual performance review before the board’s executive committee.
The employees were to confront Kinoshita on grave concerns about human resources operations, sources say.
But executive committee members wouldn’t support Shawver’s request, thereby blocking Kinoshita’s testimony from the closed session, sources said.
The employees left that day reportedly more fearful than when they arrived, sources say. Shawver declined comment.
At about that same time, Kinoshita’s questionable hiring of a human resources director last year came under scrutiny, records and officials say.
In July 2013, a Kinoshita email announced the hiring of an interim director of human resources, Janet Wells -- who in June 2013 retired as human resources director at the Irvine Ranch Water District after 33 years of employment.
Then in October, a Kinoshita email announced Wells was named permanent human resources director.
Shortly thereafter, Wells announced to the human resources staff that a complaint was filed about her permanent appointment. Sources say the hiring of Wells was a backdoor move without a search or adequate opportunity for internal candidates to apply.
Interestingly, the Fire Authority board didn’t raise any concern about the hire of someone already eligible for a 33-year public agency pension; a double-dipping move often criticized by some Orange County politicians.
After a public records request was filed by the Voice of OC, Sherry Wentz, the Fire Authority’s clerk, refused to release any documents about Wells’ hiring or issues that ensued.
In December, the Fire Authority issued an advertisement for a human relations director, paying $104,000 to $166,000. In April, Hammond was hired and Wells resigned when she wasn’t selected. Wells couldn’t be reached for comment.
A Firefighter's Drug Problem
The incident involving missing narcotics after Santa Ana rescue run raises questions about how vigorously the agency probes such allegations.
Fire Authority records show a firefighter engine company from Station 71 responded about 6 p.m. on May 17 to a report of a woman having a seizure on North Broadway.
Then, on June 4, records show the family reported to a Santa Ana battalion commander that Tramadol [an opiate-derived painkiller] was missing from the home’s medicine cabinet, which had been shown to the rescue crew.
In a response to a June 10 survey of customer satisfaction sent to the family by the Fire Authority, the family reported being pleased with the response, except “the only problem” was that the painkiller jar was noticed gone the next day.
At the end of June, Devon Leonard, the division chief for Santa Ana, denied any knowledge of missing drugs when contacted by a Voice of OC reporter. Then at the end of July when contacted again, Leonard said he queried his staff about the allegation “and heard nothing back.”
After Leonard was told the Voice of OC had documents noting the survey complaint, he acknowledged the allegation, but said no one could prove a crew member had taken the drugs.
“There could be 20 ways it disappeared,” he said.
And Voice of OC obtained a June 23 email sent by the engineer -- in which he acknowledges his drug problem, and at the union’s suggestion asks colleagues to work his shifts until he could return to work, when he would then work their shifts to pay them back.
“I’ve been battling a personal demon for four years,” wrote the engineer, who claimed to be in treatment with a family doctor. “I am ashamed I allowed things to get so far out of control. I finally raised my hands in defeat last week and asked for help.”
After the email disclosure, Leonard acknowledged the engineer was on the rescue run to the house where the drugs disappeared; and is now on unpaid leave.
When the engineer’s disclosures were described to an official familiar with the Fire Authority’s procedures, that individual suspected the engineer might be trying to work his way around the agency’s requirements for cracking down on drug abuse.
For instance, an allegation of criminal behavior -- like stealing medications -- typically is reported to police. A Santa Ana police spokesman confirmed they received no report on the incident from either the Fire Authority or the family that lost the drugs.
Asked how people could have confidence the case was handled appropriately, Leonard said:
“The day the allegations were found, the individual was confronted, and has not worked a shift since. It was dealt with swiftly, and he was removed from duty.”
Later, the Voice of OC learned from sources it was long known within the ranks that the engineer had a substance abuse issue.
Voice of OC staff writer Adam Elmahrek contributed to this article.
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.