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Saturday, November 6, 2010

LACDA: Monrovia Fire Officials investigated for Improper Payments

Exclusive: D.A. Investigated Fire Officials for Improper Payments
The investigation was dropped when two fire officials returned the money in question.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Public Integrity Division investigated allegations earlier this year that two fire officials received improper payments from the city, but the inquiry was dropped when the officials returned the money, according to prosecutors.

Fire Chief Christopher Donovan and Battalion Chief Christiano Fabrizio each received small monthly payments as part of a certification program, according to a letter written by prosectuor David Demerjian, the Head Deputy of the Public Integrity Division.

Donovan received $100 per month from April 2008 until January 2009, while Fabrizio received $50 per month from June 2008 until January 2009. No explanation was provided as to why the payments stopped, according to Demerjian.

The two officials were not eligible to receive the payments, and Demerjian's office wrote a letter to the city in February asking for an explanation of why the money was paid to them. Unsatisfied with the city's response, Demerjian sent another letter in March explaining that the payments appeared to be illegal.

"It would appear that the chief and battalion chief received additional compensation that they were not entitled to ...," Demerjian's letter said. "Unless you can provide me with a contract provision, ordinance, or resolution that was in effect at the time the payments were made, it would appear that the payments were made in violation [of the penal code] as a misappropriation of public funds without authority of law."

In an interview Tuesday, Demerjian said Donovan and Fabrizio returned the money that was in dispute.

"The money was paid back," Demerjian said. "As long as the money was paid back, we closed the case."

The city argued that the payments were legitimate because they were authorized by a section of city code and because the city has a "long standing practice of providing such benefits to managers and mid-managers," according to Demerjian's letter written in March. But the justification provided was inadequate, Demerjian said.

"As to the other justification, that the pay is appropriate because the city has always done it that way, it fails to recognize the requirements that the expenditure of public funds must not only serve a legitimate public purpose but must also be made in accordance with some valid statute, ordinance or resolution," Demerjian wrote. "An ongoing violation does not become valid over time."

The complaint made to the district attorney's office about the payments was filed by Dave Rapp, the president of the Monrovia Firefighters Local 2415 union, according to Leo Terrell, Rapp's attorney. Rapp is suing the city for discrimination and claims he was passed over for promotions because of his involvement with the firefighter's union.

City Manager Scott Ochoa said Tuesday that the city believed its labor agreement allowed for the payments to be made. It has since amended its memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the city and the union to allow the two fire officials to receive the payments, he said.

Ochoa noted Rapp's complaint was made while he had an ongoing labor dispute with the fire department.

"What you have here is a labor/management dispute," Ochoa said. "At the end of the day that's all this is."

Donovan declined to comment on this story, citing ongoing litigation. Tim Owen, an attorney representing Donovan and the city, also declined to comment and said he has not yet seen Rapp's lawsuit.

The suit was filed in federal court in late August, according to court records. But the city has not yet been served with the lawsuit, Owen said.

"I'm unaware of any circumstances that would account for a two month delay for a lawsuit that had been filed," Owen said. "It causes me to wonder why [Terrell] didn't serve it yet."

Rapp's lawsuit is one of six discrimination lawsuits filed against the city over the last five years. The city has settled two of the suits and won a judgment in a third. The fourth suit was withdrawn.

The city is currently scheduled to go to trial in the fifth lawsuit, which was filed by a female fire inspector who claimed she was discriminated against because of her gender.
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