Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department Received Complaints a Top Official Was Working Under the Influence; Some Say It Was Covered Up

Paul Pringle

Los Angeles Times

(MCT)

LOS ANGELES – In May, as the Los Angeles Fire Department was battling the Palisades blaze, Chief Ralph Terrazas received a report that his top administrative commander appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while on duty at the agency’s headquarters, where he was overseeing its operations center, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

LAFD rules require agency officials to deal promptly with employees suspected of being under the influence, but records and interviews show that the complaint about Chief Deputy Fred Mathis’ condition was not filed for three days, a delay the department has not explained.

The complaint says that Mathis admitted he had been drinking. Terrazas did not respond to a Times question asking whether Mathis was ordered to submit a urine sample for testing, as required under LAFD rules.

In the meantime, a retroactive entry was logged into the city’s timekeeping system days later to show that Mathis was out sick the same day a colleague reported that the chief deputy was intoxicated on the job at the department’s downtown office at City Hall East, interviews and a record obtained by the Times show.

The incident – and the secrecy shrouding how it was handled – has provoked sharp criticism within the agency and revived long-standing accusations of racial bias.

Two department officers who represent groups of Black and Latino firefighters said Terrazas’ handling of the Mathis matter violated LAFD policy. They said Terrazas gave Mathis, who is white and one of two chief deputies in the department, special treatment that is not granted to nonwhite employees accused of similar misconduct.

“It’s a total cover-up and a double standard, and the chief protects his own,” said Assistant Chief Patrick Butler, who wrote a letter to the Fire Commission about the affair in his capacity as president of Los Bomberos, an organization of Latino firefighters. “We want the standards to be applied uniformly across the organization.”

Butler also said, “The only reason the complaint was filed was that the incident became common knowledge at department headquarters and that Mathis was missing critical meetings.”

Capt. Robert Hawkins, executive vice president of the Stentorians, a group of Black firefighters, said: “Chief Terrazas knew about this and broke policy. It’s a lack of accountability and lack of integrity. People get special privileges based on rank and skin color.”

The Stentorians also sent a letter to the Fire Commission asserting that Terrazas “granted special treatment” to Mathis.

Terrazas and Mathis did not respond to interview requests. Terrazas also did not answer several written questions the Times emailed to him.

Commission President Delia Ibarra declined to be interviewed but said in an email to the Times that she called for an investigation after receiving the letters from Los Bomberos and the Stentorians.

“I asked that the department submit the matter for a disciplinary investigation by the city attorney’s office, or by another entity, at the city attorney’s discretion,” Ibarra wrote.

An LAFD spokeswoman said in a statement to the Times, “Upon notification of the situation, the fire chief immediately directed that the appropriate steps be taken in accordance (with) department policy which includes an entry into our Complaint Tracking System for investigation.”

The spokeswoman, Cheryl Getuiza, declined to comment when asked about the three-day delay in filing the complaint. She said Mathis “was never assigned to the Palisades fire.”

But Butler, who is a member of Terrazas’ executive team, said Mathis had an oversight role in managing personnel and equipment for the fire as the department’s duty officer.

In her statement, Getuiza said the Mathis complaint was forwarded to City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office for investigation. Feuer, who is running for mayor, did not respond to an interview request made through his spokesman, Rob Wilcox.

Wilcox, a candidate for city controller, said the investigation would be conducted by a Pasadena law firm, Yasinski & Jones, which did not respond to Times queries.

Butler, who has testified for the LAFD as an expert on disciplinary procedures, said that in his previous work on personnel investigations, he has seen the department use law firms to conceal findings and thwart public scrutiny by citing attorney-client privilege.

“When you outsource a public personnel matter to a private firm, there is no public oversight,” Butler said. “It’s another way to cover things up.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office rejected a Times request for numerous documents related to the allegations against Mathis, a refusal that open-government experts said was a violation of the California Public Records Act.

The Times obtained copies of the Mathis complaint and Mathis’ timekeeping record from a source inside the department.

As commander of the department’s administrative bureau, Mathis is responsible for responding “to major emergencies and other incidents as head of an Incident Management Team” and for conducting “pre-disciplinary hearings and making appropriate recommendations to the Fire Chief of corrective action,” according to the agency’s website. His pay is more than $350,000 a year, city records show.

The complaint, which was filed electronically, states: “It is alleged that on/about Tuesday, May 18, 2021, Battalion Chief Stacy Gerlich witnessed Chief Deputy Fred Mathis exhibiting signs of intoxication, while on duty at City Hall East. Additionally, Chief Mathis is alleged to have admitted to Chief Gerlich that he had been drinking alcohol.”

Gerlich did not respond to interview requests.

Assistant Chief Jaime Moore said in an interview that another employee told him that Mathis appeared to be intoxicated. Moore said he went to Terrazas’ office sometime in the middle of that week to relate that information and “he assured me that he would handle it.”

The Times’ copy of Mathis’ timekeeping record shows that he was on sick leave May 18 and May 19, entries that were made May 22.

“They changed a timekeeping record after the fact, which is not the policy or the procedure,” Butler said.

Five days after the incident, Butler wrote to the Fire Commission on behalf of Los Bomberos. Referring to Mathis, he said in the letter that Terrazas’ command staff “may have facilitated special privileges to this high-ranking member to circumvent the investigatory process, including timely notifications, and deviations from policies which would have included mandatory testing.”

A letter from Gerald Durant, president of the Stentorians, to the commission stated that Mathis “was considered unfit for duty and granted special privileges to remain in his position without proper due process of the allegations against him.”

Durant, a fire inspector, also wrote that “we question the LAFD’s honesty, integrity, and fairness.”

In an interview, Hawkins, the captain who is also vice president of the Stentorians, cited the case of a former Black firefighter who resigned under pressure this year. Hawkins said the firefighter, whom he declined to name, was falsely accused of lying on a document that stated he attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He said the firefighter was required to attend the meeting because of a drunk-driving arrest many years ago.

“He was a victim of the good ol’ boys club,” in which firefighters are treated based on the “color of their badge and their skin,” Hawkins said. Chiefs are issued gold badges.

In response to the Times’ request under the state Public Records Act, Garcetti’s office released only the letters from Los Bomberos and the Stentorians. Among other material, the newspaper had asked for the complaint, the identification numbers of Mathis’ city car and security camera recordings for the entrances and exits of the City Hall East parking structure. The latter two were sought with the aim of determining when Mathis was at work the day he was alleged to be intoxicated.

An attorney for the mayor’s office, Rachel Teitelbaum, said in a letter to the Times that the records withheld by the city were exempt from disclosure on grounds that they were “pre-decisional and advisory in nature” and that releasing them would result in an “unwanted invasion of personal privacy.”

Teitelbaum also cited an exemption that states “the public interest served by withholding the records clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.” She did not specify which exemption applied to which record.

David Snyder, executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for government transparency, said the city’s position on the records “doesn’t hold any water.”

“California law is clear that the public is entitled to know when somebody as high-ranking as (Mathis) has been accused of something this serious, especially if the accusations are about conduct while he was on duty,” Snyder said.

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