Orange County Fire Authority officials will not face criminal charges for $1.7 million in improper fees the agency issued to local businesses for hazardous waste inspections that weren’t conducted.
On Oct. 5, nearly three years after the questionable fees were discovered, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office quietly notified the Fire Authority it was closing the criminal probe without prosecutorial action.
“We have concluded there is insufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing by any OCFA personnel [past or present] with regard to the [hazmat] program,” wrote Michael Lubinski, senior assistant district attorney, in a letter dated Sept. 30.
In 2012, the Fire Authority — an independent agency serving 23 cities and county regions — disclosed that businesses were paying fees for inspections concerning dangerous or combustible material, but some 1,400 inspections from 2005-2012 weren’t conducted or couldn’t be verified.
As part of the criminal probe, prosecutors said they interviewed numerous Fire Authority staff, reviewed voluminous records and reports, and conducted inspections and audits.
Referencing an audit report, the DA’s letter stated the hazmat inspection program was marked by “poor oversight, confusion, and lack of communication” by managers.
But the probe — strictly limited to potential violations of criminal statutes — did not uncover a chargeable offense, they said.
The issue was one of a number of controversies that roiled the agency in recent years and ended up forcing out staff — including former Fire Chief Keith Richter in August 2014.
Fire Marshall Laura Blaul, whose office primarily was responsible for the inspections, was terminated in late 2013.
Also in July 2013, the responsibility for the inspections was assumed by the county Health Care Agency’’s environmental program, a major embarrassment for the Fire Authority.
A Fire Authority spokesman said officials were unavailable for comment, adding the agency has moved on after the issues were identified and corrected.
Hazardous inspections are designed to ensure safe practices at businesses, and to protect firefighters, police or other safety personnel responding to emergencies. Checks could be conducted by firefighters from various stations, or fire prevention personnel.
Inspections identified what materials [over a certain quantity] are at locations, their proper storage, a map of facilities, emergency evacuation plans, and employee safety training.
Audit records, email communications among staff and interviews indicated it was well known within the agency that the money was being collected for inspections not performed, but administers failed to ensure the inspections took place.
Leaders of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association said firefighters were directed not to conduct the inspections during the time in question. But administrators disputed this.
“OC firefighters are pleased that no wrongdoing was uncovered during the district attorney investigation,” said
Ray Geagan, the union president, in a statement.
“Unfortunately, as a result of the mishandling of the hazardous materials inspection program…oversight was returned to the county.”
After the audit identified businesses where inspections couldn’t be verified, the Fire Authority sought to refund the $1.7 million.
About $1.3 million was returned to businesses, with the remaining $400,000 transferred to the Health Care Agency for application for future inspection costs, officials said.
A previous version misspelled the name of Michael Lubinski, senior assistant district attorney. We regret the error.
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 [email protected]