Criminal Probe Underway Into OC Fire Authority Event With Political Candidates

Two of the images posted to social media by San Clemente City Council candidate Jackson Hinkle that drew concerns about use of government resources for political campaigning.

A criminal investigation has been launched into an Orange County Fire Authority event that triggered concerns about using government resources for political campaigning.

The Sheriff’s Department is examining an Aug. 31 event at the Fire Authority’s headquarters, in which the firefighters union invited candidates it supports to wear firefighting gear and participate in simulated firefighting scenarios.

“We are investigating,” said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Carrie Braun. An investigator is examining multiple state laws to see if they’ve been violated, in preparation for a report to county prosecutors who will decide whether to file criminal charges, she said.

“He has not submitted any charges to the District Attorney’s Office for filing consideration yet, but is actively investigating,” Braun said.

DA officials are reviewing a complaint related to the event, said Kimberly Edds, the office’s chief spokeswoman.

At least one of the candidates, Jackson Hinkle of San Clemente, posted photos on his campaign’s social media accounts of wearing a Fire Authority uniform and helmet and noting his endorsement from the firefighters’ union.

In one image, Hinkle is shown wearing a jacket with the agency’s initials – “OCFA” – and a firefighting helmet bearing his last name in printed letters.

In another photo, posted to his campaign’s Instagram account, Hinkle wears his election campaign t-shirt and a Fire Authority helmet.

And in a campaign ad, Hinkle promotes his union endorsement next to a photo of himself smiling in front of a fire truck bearing the Fire Authority’s logo.

Hinkle declined to comment for this story. Union officials didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, and Fire Authority officials did not make Chief Brian Fennessy or a representative available for an interview.

The event with Fire Authority property and equipment was called “Fire Ops 3631,” and was coordinated by the union, Orange County Professional Firefighters, Local 3631. The invitations were sent out by the union’s political affairs director, according to public records, and in at least one case an invite was sent to a candidate’s campaign email address.

The union endorsed Hinkle in his run for a vacant San Clemente City Council seat next month, in a special election triggered by former Mayor Steven Swartz’s death.

The union has donated $7,000 to Hinkle’s campaign, and the candidate linked the union’s endorsement to why he was invited to the August event.

“Following my endorsement from the Orange County Professional Firefighters, I had the opportunity to join our local firefighters at a Fire Ops event. This day showed me the smoke, the sweat, the adrenaline rush and the physical strain that firefighters face on their job daily,” Hinkle wrote in a Sept. 3 Facebook post.

“Thank you to our local firefighters for giving me this opportunity & endorsing my campaign for San Clemente City Council!”

In a statement, the Fire Authority said the event was not political and that it could not control how candidates would use images from it.

“For clarity, Fire Ops was an educational event hosted by Local 3631, and was not a campaign event. As you may know, OCFA personnel and equipment are involved in many fire prevention and life safety educational events throughout the year and at many locations,” said Colleen Windsor, the Fire Authority’s communications director.

“While OCFA events are not conducted to support any political campaign, OCFA cannot control when individual attendees use photos from an educational event as part of a political campaign. The limited exception to that includes protecting the OCFA trademarked logo.”

Images associating candidates with firefighters and police officers are often seen by campaigns as a significant boost to election chances. But candidates are expected to stay within certain legal lines, especially when it comes to using taxpayer-funded property and staff.

State law makes it illegal for local officials to allow government resources, including vehicles and employees, to be used for political campaigning. It’s also illegal for local government employees to wear their uniforms in political campaign images.

The Fire Authority itself has raised legal concerns to Hinkle centered on the photos he posted on his campaign’s Facebook page.

“The photos include an image containing an identifiable portion of the OCFA’s service mark (logo) on a fire truck door and other images of firefighters who appear to be in their OCFA uniforms at an event that used OCFA resources,” wrote David Kendig, the Fire Authority’s top attorney, in a Sept. 13 email to Hinkle.

“California Government Code section 3206 mandates that an officer or employee of a local agency may not ‘participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform.’ OCFA’s personnel had no intention of engaging in political activity at the pictured event,” the email continued.

Hinkle’s posts “could prompt an investigation to determine whether the OCFA employees violated section 3206,” Kendig wrote, asking Hinkle to remove the images.

Additionally, the lawyer noted “it is unlawful for officials to use public resources for campaign purposes,” and the members of the public could file complaints against the agency over it.

The photos ultimately were taken off Hinkle’s campaign page, at least two weeks after the event.

Hinkle later said he wasn’t stopped from taking photos in a firefighter uniform while wearing his campaign shirt, and that he was encouraged to post photos of the event online.

“I was encouraged to take photos throughout the Fire Ops event & share them on my social media accounts. During the event, there were no guidelines as to who and what I could and could not take photos/video of,” Hinkle wrote in a Sept. 20 Facebook post responding to the brewing controversy.

A Facebook commenter, referring to firefighter uniforms, asked Hinkle if the “firefighters said it was acceptable for you to pose in turn downs and a campaign shirt.”

“I was not stopped,” Hinkle replied.

He wasn’t the only candidate to participate and post photos of themselves with Fire Authority equipment.

In Facebook posts, Hinkle said the event “was attended by numerous other candidates for local & higher offices,” including “A few state senate candidates, a few local candidates.”

One of those candidates was Katrina Foley, the mayor of Costa Mesa who is running for state Senate in a competitive race and was endorsed by the union. Her city is not part of the Fire Authority.

On Sept. 1, she posted photos of herself wearing firefighting gear at the Fire Authority event with firefighters. Foley was wearing a jacket marked “OCFA” in large letters and what appears to be a firefighter helmet with “Foley” written on it.

The Senate district Foley is running for includes several cities that have the Fire Authority as their fire departments, including Irvine, the largest city in the district.

Foley, contacted by phone Tuesday morning and afternoon, didn’t provide a comment before this article was published.

Kathy Ward, a San Clemente councilwoman who serves on the Fire Authority’s board and was pictured wearing a firefighting helmet and posing in front of a fire truck, did not return a phone message for comment.

Voice of OC left phone messages for the Fire Authority’s chief, Fennessy; the union’s president, Tim Steging; and the union’s political affairs director who sent out the invitations, Brent Berkompas. They did not return the calls.

The invites said the event was for Fire Authority board members, “elected officials,” and unspecified “associates” of the union. All of the Fire Authority’s board members are elected officials, many of whom run for re-election or higher office.

“Participants have the choice to observe or participate in scenarios that include suiting up in protective gear, deploying actual hose lines, working with firefighter tools/equipment and going inside a real fire in a simulated, controlled environment with specially trained OCFA firefighters, trainers and instructors,” said the event invitation from the union.

The union – and only the union – decided who would be invited, according to the Fire Authority.

“OCFA had no involvement in the invitations. This was a Local 3631 event. The invitations were decided and handled solely by Local 3631,” said Windsor, the Fire Authority spokeswoman.

The firefighters’ union is Hinkle’s largest campaign donor, providing $7,000 – nearly one third of the $22,128 in donations he’s reported so far.

The union gave $5,000 to Hinkle’s campaign on Sept. 4, four days after the event. It was the firefighters’ union’s largest individual donation to a city candidate since at least the beginning of 2017. Another $2,000 was donated about a month later, on Oct. 8.

During public comments at the Sept. 18 City Council meeting, resident Tony Rubolino criticized how the event was used to promote a candidate and alleged a “misuse of public funds.” He showed photos of Hinkle and Ward at the firefighters’ event, the Fire Authority’s legal concerns, and suggested Ward had invited Hinkle as a guest.

Ward didn’t respond, and the only reaction was from Councilman Chris Hamm, who works as an OCFA firefighter and wanted to make clear he didn’t go to the event.

“I just need to clarify the record – I wasn’t at that event. I spend as little time as possible at headquarters,” said Hamm, who endorsed Hinkle’s council run.

Hinkle is an environmental activist who graduated from San Clemente High School last year and has gained endorsements from several current and former elected officials in the city.

During the campaign season, Hinkle has publicly opposed San Clemente’s decision to add two sheriff’s deputies in the city, and has called for re-establishing the city’s police department and switching the law enforcement services to it from the Sheriff’s Department.

Under state law, local government employees who let someone use public resources for campaign activity can be fined $1,000 for each day of violation, plus three times the amount of the improperly used resources.

In serious cases, misusing government resources for personal benefit can be criminally prosecuted as a felony under Penal Code section 424.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.