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IONE, Calif. (AP) — Two captains demoted after a scandal at California's firefighting training academy were restored to their previous rank within a month, prompting the agency's chief to say Monday that he will try to demote them again.
Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott also said he was working with the state's personnel department to develop better training after learning that the disciplinary reports filed against the two captains inadvertently allowed for the rapid reinstatements.
Records obtained by The Associated Press show other recent CalFire disciplinary actions unrelated to the training academy scandal also failed to stand.
The cases include a helicopter pilot who flew while wearing a full-face gorilla mask and a deputy chief who ordered firefighters to shed their shirts and dance at charity events. Both appealed their punishment to the personnel board and had the penalties reduced.
"At the end of the day would I like things to be better on that end?" Pimlott asked. "Absolutely. But I am not frustrated by it, it's not deterring me."
Pimlott spoke to the AP during his first interview since 16 employees quit or were fired, suspended or demoted earlier this year at the fire academy near Sacramento for activities that included drinking on duty, sharing sexually explicit photographs, using a state vehicle to visit prostitutes, and sexually harassing a civilian at a local bar.
Pimlott blamed the scandal on poor leadership by "some bad apples" who have been removed from the academy. Most of the department's 7,000 employees were disgusted by the behavior, Pimlott said, adding that he has not seen any signs of extensive problems elsewhere within the agency.
Among those punished were Justin Chaplin and Frank Schonig. They were demoted and their pay was docked 5 percent for a year after officials said they cheated to get leadership positions at the academy.
However, each regained their previous rank of captain in less than a month because of the way the department wrote their disciplinary reports.
Reports obtained by the AP through a public records act request show the two were allowed to remain eligible for promotion because of their honesty during the investigation, and they were quickly given their previous ranks after finding new assignments elsewhere within the department.
Pimlott said he is unsure whether the former academy employees can be demoted again but is seeking to do so if possible.
"That sounds like double-jeopardy," said Mike Lopez, president of the union representing the captains and other state firefighters. "Once you discipline someone for an action, that's that."
Meantime, Pimlott said he is working with the personnel department to train employees to write better reports. Beyond that, he provided few details on the changes he would like to see.
Records show a number of disciplinary actions were reduced in 2014 during negotiations with the department after the employees appealed. The history raises concerns about whether the discipline imposed in response to the academy scandal will stand, and whether such reversals undermine Pimlott's reform efforts.
Lopez said every employee gets to make their case in the disciplinary proceedings.
"There are times when the department does not prove their case as much as they think they should have," he said.
— The department initially sought to suspend Deputy Chief Gabrielle Avina for a month and demote her to assistant chief for assigning on-duty firefighters to attend charity events where they "were routinely requested ... to dance around, take off their shirts, and subjected to catcalls, screaming girls, cat cries while soliciting bids at charity auction events."
A settlement reduced her punishment to a written reprimand.
— The department sought to reduce Fire Captain Ronald McLaughlin's pay by 5 percent for six months for photographing an inmate firefighter with moss draped across his face and sending it with the caption that the inmate was "in his escape attire." Other allegations included using state materials and equipment to make goose decoys for his personal use.
His pay cut was reduced to five months in a settlement. The department also removed him from supervising inmates, cutting his pay by another 10 percent.
— The department wanted to suspend helicopter pilot Daniel Clark for a week and dock his pay 10 percent for 10 months for wearing the latex gorilla mask under his flight helmet as he ferried seven CalFire employees to train a Santa Clara County fire academy class on Halloween 2013.
Clark conducted a helicopter safety presentation for cadets while wearing the mask, until he had to remove it because they couldn't hear him. He used his state email to forward a photograph of himself in the mask to other firefighters, with a caption that his flight school training officers "always said that they could teach a monkey to fly a helicopter."
His pay cut was eventually reduced to three months.
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