Los Angeles Times
Since May, the top administrative commander of the Los Angeles Fire Department, Chief Deputy Fred Mathis, has been under investigation for allegedly being impaired by alcohol or drugs while overseeing the agency’s operations center during the Palisades fire.
But as the inquiry continued, Mathis was still able to access the LAFD’s confidential complaint system that contains sensitive information about the allegations against him, including the names of witnesses in the case, The Times has learned. Department critics say that could have exposed the witnesses to possible retaliation.
After The Times inquired about the matter, the LAFD confirmed that Mathis had logged into the system while under investigation. Spokeswoman Cheryl Getuiza said the department has revoked Mathis’ access but could not determine which information he reviewed. Getuiza said the LAFD notified the witnesses and received no reports of retaliation.
Getuiza declined to say precisely when Mathis’ access was revoked or how many times he gained entry into the system. That is now part of the investigation, Getuiza said. She said the probe also has been broadened to examine allegations that Mathis misused a city credit card and vehicle. In addition, it is examining whether Mathis was allowed to drive himself home at some point after he was reported to be under the influence, Getuiza said.
Mathis did not respond to requests for an interview or comment. He has been on paid injury leave since June 30 for “continuous trauma to an extremity,” according to Getuiza. Mathis’ pay is more than $350,000 a year, city records show.
Representatives of three organizations of Black, Latino and women firefighters say the complaint system episode is yet another demonstration of Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas’ mismanagement of the department, which they contend includes favorable treatment for white male employees such as Mathis. They have asked for a federal investigation of what they alleged are discriminatory and corrupt practices in the department, a request the U.S. attorney’s office has said it is reviewing.
In a statement to The Times, Terrazas defended in a general way the department’s handling of the Mathis case. “The department follows all aspects of the investigatory procedure to ensure due process for all our employees,” he said.
Fire Inspector Gerald Durant, president of the Stentorians, the Black firefighters organization, said Mathis’ ability to access the complaint system was like something out of “Twilight Zone.” “How do you get to do that?” Durant said. “I’m surprised but not surprised.”
The president of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, Battalion Chief Kris Larson, echoed that sentiment, saying, “I don’t even know how to comment on that. Nothing shocks me anymore.”
Several members of the Fire Commission told The Times the department had not informed the civilian panel about Mathis’ accessing the system.
“That’s very inappropriate behavior,” Commission President Jimmie Woods-Gray said in reference to Mathis. “It’s a lot of nerve.”
Woods-Gray said the department often keeps the commission in the dark about allegations of misconduct. “We really don’t get much information,” she added. “They don’t tell you anything unless they’re asked.”
Getuiza said in an email to The Times that “there is no indication” that files in the complaint system “were tampered with or altered” by Mathis. “In the complaint tracking system, there is no mechanism to determine what specifically was viewed, only which employee ID logged in and at which times.”
The department initially asked City Atty. Mike Feuer to conduct the investigation into whether Mathis was intoxicated while on duty, but he turned it over to a Pasadena law firm, Yasinski & Jones. Feuer, who is running for mayor, has not responded to requests for an interview or comment. The law firm has not responded to Times queries.
Representatives of the organizations of non-white and women firefighters contend Feuer’s use of the private firm is a means of keeping information embarrassing to the department from public view.
Getuiza said that once the firm completes its investigation, Terrazas will decide what, if any, discipline Mathis will face. She said any findings implicating Terrazas in wrongdoing will be referred to the mayor’s office.
Last month, Larson and other advocates for women said Terrazas should resign or be removed. They cited long-standing complaints that women and non-white members of the LAFD have been subjected to sexism, racism, harassment and retaliation. Commissioner Rebecca Ninburg issued a letter the next day urging Garcetti to replace Terrazas on similar grounds. “I have seen firsthand how Chief Terrazas has refused to take action against the ever-growing culture of racism, sexism, retaliation, and abuse in the department,” Ninburg wrote.
She said in an interview that the Mathis scandal reflects a larger problem in the department of too many firefighters being “allowed to act with impunity.”
In June, six Black employees in the Fire Prevention Bureau, which is responsible for safety inspections and investigating the causes of fires, sued the city, alleging the LAFD is governed by a “good old white boys club” that discriminates in granting promotions.
A Times report in July examined complaints that Mayor Eric Garcetti failed to keep his promises to significantly expand the ranks of women firefighters and overhaul a department in which women and non-white firefighters told of feeling bullied in a “frat house” culture. And last month, LAist.com reported on allegations of women firefighters being subjected to hazing, retaliation and discrimination, with one saying she faced threats of sexual violence after she complained.
Garcetti has continued to stand behind the chief. Terrazas said in a statement that he plans to retire when Garcetti leaves office. The mayor is awaiting Senate confirmation of President Biden’s nomination of him as U.S. ambassador to India. If confirmed, Garcetti would leave City Hall before his mayoral term ends late next year.
Patrick Butler, a member and former president of the Latino firefighters group, said Garcetti has ignored the department’s troubles because he fears losing the political backing of the LAFD’s labor union, United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. Butler and other critics said UFLAC supports the mayor and Terrazas to bolster the union’s negotiating position for pay raises and benefits.
“The mayor is part of the problem, and the union is a lackey for the chief,” said Butler, who retired this month as an assistant chief.
A spokesman for Garcetti did not respond to a request for comment.
UFLAC President Freddy Escobar rejected the criticism of the chief and the union, describing it in a statement as “the same old quotes from the same small group of people.”
Escobar said the LAFD “has made tremendous progress on issues related to discrimination, diversity, and inclusion. … Chief Terrazas has been a critical part of this progress and UFLAC does not support any calls for his termination.”
In July, a Times investigation found that Mathis was reported by colleagues to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while overseeing the LAFD’s operations center at City Hall East on May 18, when the department was battling the Palisades fire. Terrazas’ staff did not file a complaint against Mathis for three days, even though department policy requires immediate action when a firefighter is suspected of being intoxicated.
In addition, a retroactive entry in Mathis’ timekeeping records listed him as being on sick leave the day he was reported to be intoxicated on duty, records obtained by The Times show. Butler and other critics alleged that altering Mathis’ timekeeping record was an attempt to cover up the affair.
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. But The Times obtained copies of the Mathis complaint and his 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.
Five days after Mathis was allegedly intoxicated at work, Butler wrote to the Commission on behalf of Los Bomberos, the Latino firefighters group. 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.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.