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Money to Burn: LAFD Has No Handle on Discrimination

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Fire Department is breaking new ground in the landscape of mismanagement: It has so bollixed a case of harassment that it's paying off legal claims to the rank-and-file victim and to managers it claimed were responsible for the investigation.

Capts. John Tohill and Chris Burton sued the city in October 2006, alleging that they were unfairly suspended after a Latino firefighter slipped dog food into a black firefighter's dinner. Tennie Pierce, the firefighter who ate the dog food, sued the department for racial harassment and retaliation, contending that the incident escalated into an ordeal in which he became the target of slurs, insults, derogatory remarks and taunts. In their racial discrimination suit, the captains said that when Pierce was fed the dog food at Fire Station 5 in Westchester, they responded appropriately and immediately. It was the department, not them, that resisted a formal investigation, and the captains, both of whom are white, said they were scapegoated as political pressure grew.

Pierce eventually settled with the city for $1.5 million, but this is the Energizer lawsuit -- it just keeps costing and costing and costing. The city spent $1.3 million on legal fees in the Pierce case, and the jury in the Tohill and Burton case awarded them $1.6 million. Throw in the legal fees on the latest case, and taxpayers are on track to spend at least $4.5 million to clean up the mess caused by a single station house stunt. That's in addition to the $13 million in other payouts for harassment that the department has cost the city in the past two years.

Each of these lawsuits and payouts besmirches one of the finest firefighting and emergency medical response organizations there is. One need only recall last summer, when colleagues of these men flew night helicopter missions and put themselves between flames and homes, rescuing Los Angeles from the Griffith Park fires. Steve Tufts, head of United Firefighters of Los Angeles, had it absolutely right when he told The Times that the jury award "is not an indictment of the firefighters. It's an indictment of the management of the Fire Department." History supports that claim. A city audit found entrenched harassment and discrimination at the department more than a decade ago.

Still, you can say this for the top brass: The Tohill and Burton case proves that when it comes to race-based mistreatment, they don't discriminate.

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