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Metro Fire Settles Sex Case

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The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District is paying $550,000 in public money to a former employee to settle a dispute in which she accused more than a dozen firefighters including five supervisors of sexual harassment and alleged she was sexually assaulted by two of them.

The two men accused of assaulting the woman denied her allegations. No charges were filed against any district employees, and no criminal investigation ever took place.

However, several of the firefighters accused of sexual harassment and misconduct admitted to an internal investigator that they had consensual sex with the woman while on duty, including in a bathroom at the district’s fleet office and a conference room at the Hurley Way headquarters, according to district documents obtained by The Bee.

Ultimately, seven men faced discipline, including leave without pay. None was fired.

The district signed the legal settlement last November and handed out the discipline after an internal investigation by retired FBI agent Jeff Rinek, who was hired to evaluate allegations the woman outlined in a graphic e-mail she sent to the district last Sept. 27. In it, she described incidents that took place from 2000 to 2003.

Rinek is a specialist in sexual assault cases who became famous for securing a confession from Cary Stayner for the murders of three people near Yosemite National Park.

During his Metro Fire investigation, he told some of the men he interviewed that he believed firefighters had taken advantage of a woman they knew was mentally ill, sought sex to gain acceptance and was incapable of saying no, investigation transcripts show.

“As public servants, you swear an oath and to protect, and we’re supposed to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Rinek told one, according to transcripts obtained by The Bee. “This is a person who could not protect herself.”

‘Besieged by scandals’

District documents — including Rinek’s interviews of the woman and firefighters, prepared remarks Metro Fire Chief Don Mette used to brief the department’s board of directors in an emergency closed session last fall, and other internal documents related to the woman’s sexual harassment claim — portray a sexually charged workplace.

The woman told Rinek that male firefighters bet among themselves whether she wore underwear to work, which she said she often did not. A high-ranking manager regularly watched Internet pornography on his district computer, she claimed, and another man called from a cell phone during a golf outing to ask her for phone sex.

Several firefighters told Rinek that the woman occasionally lifted her skirt to flash male colleagues — sometimes unsolicited, at other times on request — and offered oral sex in her sport-utility vehicle, according to the interview transcripts.

The Bee is not identifying the woman, a Sacramento-area resident, because of her sexual assault allegations. District documents indicate she suffers from bipolar disorder and has received psychiatric treatment. She suffered a drug overdose at district headquarters in December 2003, Mette’s prepared remarks stated. Internal documents state it was an attempted suicide and that she lapsed into a coma for three days and never returned to work.

Mette said the allegations of workplace misconduct first came to his attention in the woman’s September e-mail. He said the district took the woman’s allegations seriously, investigating the complaints and offering her compensation for sexual harassment and what he described as her wrongful termination in 2005.

“She is, and has been, a true victim by some of our male employees,” Mette’s prepared remarks for the board stated.

In a recent letter to The Bee, Mette noted that the woman’s case is but one of many that have left him “besieged by scandals and improprieties” since he took over as district chief 16 months ago. He added that the misconduct arose under the prior district administration led by former Chief Rick Martinez, who is now the emergency operations coordinator for Sacramento County.

“I have dealt fairly, swiftly and appropriately with these issues on a constant basis since my inauguration,” Mette stated.

Although documents show one deputy chief claimed that he personally warned Martinez many times that the woman’s presence was a serious problem, Martinez told The Bee that he cannot recall a deputy chief ever expressing such concerns to him.

“I was aware that the woman had some personal issues,” he said. “She had these episodes where she was gone for a while. She was distracting.”

Martinez said Teresa Means, his deputy chief of human resources, disciplined the woman and three men in 2001 for sending sexually explicit e-mails through the district computer system.

Martinez also said the woman was never illegally terminated by the district while he was chief. She simply stopped showing up for work after she was hospitalized, he said, and her position was filled when she did not respond to a letter requesting her return to work.

Martinez added that no female employee ever alleged she was sexually assaulted while he was district chief. He expressed anger that, if the claims were true, he had not been told of them.

“I sure as heck didn’t know,” Martinez said. “I can’t fathom that they would keep it from me. In my 10 years as chief, this would have been the most significant personnel issue I had been involved in.”

Had such allegations been brought to his attention, Martinez said, his first action would have been to notify the appropriate law enforcement agency of the alleged assault so a proper investigation could be conducted. Martinez said he was never contacted during the district’s internal investigation.

District didn’t report claims

Richard Margarita, the district’s current general counsel, said Metro Fire officials offered to take the woman to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to file a formal criminal complaint several times after she made her claims last fall. She declined the offer, Margarita said.

However, transcripts of Rinek’s interviews with the woman include exchanges during which she painfully recounted allegedly forced sexual incidents on district property. When Rinek told her he felt that she had been sexually assaulted and asked if she would testify against district employees, she responded, “Yes.”

Asked why fire officials did not report the assault allegations themselves, Mette said the district consulted a deputy Sacramento County district attorney, who told them that the district was not obligated to report the woman’s allegations to police.

That deputy DA was Joseph Chavez, now associate general counsel for Metro Fire, who then worked in the DA’s sexual assault unit.

Chavez said that in addition to telling Margarita that he did not have to report it, he advised him that a successful prosecution was unlikely. Chavez said he based his opinion solely on Margarita’s description of the case — and not from any reading of Metro Fire documents.

DA spokeswoman Lana Wyant said Chavez was not a supervisor at the time, and therefore not authorized to offer a legal opinion about the case. Wyant added that a supervisor “would never give an opinion about a case they hadn’t read.”

Cash for pain and suffering

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which employs more than 500 and provides fire protection to 600,000 people in Sacramento County, has been plagued by a number of scandals that erupted both during and after Martinez’s tenure.

Those include allegations — which Martinez has denied — that he and other senior employees misled the board about the costs of buying and refurbishing a firefighting helicopter, the boosting of his son’s test scores in a bid to gain a district paramedic job and contracting irregularities.

The $550,000 Metro Fire settlement agreement officially admits no wrongdoing. However, it states that the money was intended to compensate the woman and her husband for the pain and suffering caused by her sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

Signed Nov. 6 but never made public, the eight-page settlement requires the couple keep confidential all details of their compensation and the “facts and issues” that led to it. Under the state Public Records Act, The Bee obtained a copy of the settlement and of bank checks confirming the payments.

The agreement was signed two months after the woman sent her detailed e-mail to Margarita with descriptions of sexual misconduct — including rape, forced sodomy and forced oral sex — that she alleged took place between 2000 and 2003, district documents indicate.

The district has refused to disclose that e-mail. But Chief Mette described it in his prepared remarks to Metro Fire’s board of directors last fall, calling the situation a “very serious, atrocious and clearly disturbing matter.”

Disciplinary action taken

Senior district employees disciplined following the internal investigation were Deputy Chief James Ritter, Battalion Chief Patrick Ellis and three captains: Pat Monahan, vice president of the Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522 labor union, William Craig Westfall and paramedic David Riggs. In addition, two other firefighters were disciplined: Brian S. Watley and Christopher N. Anaya.

All seven accepted their discipline and waived their right to an appeal hearing, district documents state. Their punishment included mandatory leaves without pay ranging from 120 to 300 or more hours, but their notices of disciplinary action indicated that they could opt to let the district debit the leave from their accrued vacation time.

Monahan, a union leader at Metro Fire, declined to discuss any aspect of the case involving himself or the others, saying: “As with any type of discipline or personnel matters, we just don’t discuss that, OK?”

Four other men named by the woman were not disciplined, while two more had retired by the time she filed her complaint and claim. One additional district employee remains under investigation for alleged sexual and other workplace misconduct.

The Bee is not identifying those who left or were not disciplined because they were never given a chance to respond to the allegations against them.

The only person known to have been fired after the internal investigation is Means, the human resources deputy chief. She was terminated amid allegations that she neglected her duty by mishandling the woman’s harassment complaints and employment issues. Through her Modesto attorney, Frank Zumwalt, Means claimed she is a scapegoat for firefighter misconduct. She is suing the district for wrongful termination.

Of the disciplined firefighters, some had what Mette described in his prepared remarks to the board as “questionable consensual intercourse” and “questionable consensual oral copulation” with the woman in district conference rooms, fire stations, storage rooms, warehouses, bathrooms and in parked cars off premises.

In her interview with Rinek, the woman claimed that the incident that troubled her the most occurred with Ellis, a former media spokesman for the district. Transcripts show that she alleged he called her into his office, closed the door and stood with his back to it. Then, she said, Ellis dropped his pants and “pretty much forced” her to perform oral sex, transcripts of her interviews show.

Reached by phone, Ellis, who had been promoted to battalion chief following the alleged incidents, confirmed he was demoted to captain for a year following the investigation.

Four sources familiar with the case, who spoke to The Bee on condition on anonymity, said Ellis also was ordered to undergo counseling and put on mandatory leave without pay for at least 300 hours.

Ellis confirmed he had been disciplined in several ways by the district for sexual misconduct with the former employee, but he declined to discuss details.

“Last year was a really tough year; I took my discipline, and I’ve moved on,” he said. “I wouldn’t still be working here if all the allegations were true, don’t you think?”

‘This is a bad situation’

The disciplined paramedic captain, Riggs, told Rinek he experienced 15 or more sexual incidents with the woman, according to transcripts of his internal investigation interview.

Riggs portrayed the woman as the sexual aggressor, saying she flashed him while wearing no underwear and suggested they go to the women’s bathroom together. There, they had their first sexual encounter, followed by others in a conference room and groping by her in district office hallways, he said.

In contrast, the woman portrayed Riggs as the sexual aggressor during her interviews with Rinek, and said he was the one who offered her a look.

In an e-mail Riggs sent in response to a Bee reporter’s letter, he stated: “Because your request involves a personnel issue, I am not at liberty to discuss it with you.”

Riggs was put on mandatory leave without pay for 280 hours, according to his disciplinary letter, which cited him for sexual harassment and on-duty sexual conduct with a fellow district employee using district facilities.

Metro Fire also put the deputy chief involved, Ritter, on mandatory leave without pay — for 240 hours — in connection with alleged verbal sexual harassment and malicious activity, district documents indicate. Ritter also agreed to retire by Dec. 31 and no longer works for the district.

In his interview with Rinek, Ritter said that he tried to support the woman and also warned then-Chief Martinez that her conduct had become a problem in district offices.

“I — I mentioned to the chief many times, let’s, uh, you know, this — this isn’t a good, uh situation. … This is a bad situation,” transcripts of Ritter’s interview quote him as saying.

Ritter did not respond to phone messages or a letter sent to his home by The Bee seeking comment.

Confidential district documents show four of the firefighters disciplined for associations with the woman were put on mandatory leave without pay for 120 hours.

District disciplinary letters cited the four for engaging in “malicious activity that would tend to disrupt morale or bring discredit to the district” and “engaging in unbecoming conduct” on duty.

The men suspended for 120 hours included Capts. Monahan of Camino and Westfall of Elk Grove, and two other firefighters, Watley of Sacramento and Anaya of El Dorado Hills.

Westfall, Watley and Anaya did not respond to phone calls or letters from The Bee seeking their comment.

The district didn’t just allow those placed on leave to use vacation time instead of taking unpaid time off work. It also kept copies of the disciplinary letters not in their regular district personnel file, but in a separate confidential legal file, district documents show. The men were told the letters would be destroyed after a year.

A duty to investigate

Rinek, the former FBI detective, declined to comment on his findings.

However, in the settlement agreement reached after his investigation, Metro Fire acknowledged that the district failed to properly investigate the woman’s sexual harassment complaints while she worked for the district.

It also states the agency failed to give the woman a chance to appeal what the settlement described as her wrongful termination at a public hearing as the union contract requires.

In the transcripts from his interviews, Rinek characterized the woman as a past sexual assault victim in serious emotional and psychological distress. She went to work for the Fire Department, he stated, because she thought she would be safe there.

Rinek told one firefighter that he at first wondered how he could investigate “firemen who are my brothers,” saying that their extramarital affairs did not concern him. He ultimately decided, he said, that he had a duty to investigate because not only were firefighters engaged in sexual misconduct with the woman in the workplace, but the woman “was preyed on.”

“My goal here,” Rinek continued, “is to take the good men and show them their mistake and make sure that the other ones are not here so that when they respond to a fire and go into someone’s house, they’re not going to rape the woman that’s asleep in her bed.”

District vulnerability cited

Documents suggest the district wanted to get the woman to sign a settlement agreement before she retained a lawyer.

Mette’s briefing statement said he decided to tell the board about the woman’s complaints and the internal investigation so they could offer him guidance relative to an “expeditious, proper and just” settlement.

“The victim has numerous available civil statutes at her disposal to file a lawsuit,” his prepared remarks state, “exposing the district to potential millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages, all of which are within the statute of limitations.”

Mette praised Rinek for his professionalism and handling of the delicate case, saying the retired agent had focused the woman on her “recovery” rather than on “a monetary solution.”

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