Calif. fire academy cheating testimony leaked
Concerns about rampant cheating are laid out within 13 hours of audio recordings of 11 of the 163 witness interviews that were leaked
By Jon Ortiz
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For more than an hour in August 2014, Shannon Browne sat with investigators at CHP's Valley Division office in Sacramento, at first hesitant, then growing more confident as she laid out her concerns. Instructors were manipulating scores on tests at Cal Fire's firefighting academy in Ione, she told the officers.
Browne, who writes test materials for academy cadets and records the scores, said that until earlier that year instructors routinely threw out results for questions that some cadets couldn't answer. She said they repeatedly told her and other staff to add points to the scores of cadets to compensate. Browne estimated the changes probably affected scores on half the tests in recent years.
The orders, she told CHP Sgt. Daniel Webb and Lt. Ezery Beauchamp, made her uncomfortable because she believed they were wrong.
"Instead of saying, 'Hey, we're not teaching this correctly,' and keeping (the questions) ... they were just passing students," Browne said during a 70-minute interview recorded by the investigators. "They were going to pass everyone ... and I know that this is a safety issue. This is someone's safety and life, and other people are depending on them. ... They (the cadets) should not be passed if they don't know the material. I mean, these are critical basic skills."
For more than a year now, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has been climbing out from a scandal that started with the murder of an academy instructor's mistress and ballooned into a wide-ranging investigation of academy activities. The agency since has dismissed or disciplined 15 employees for a range of behaviors, including drinking on duty, using state property to meet with prostitutes, and sexual harassment. It accepted the resignation of another.
But agency officials have refused to make public the CHP probe that resulted in those actions. Nor have they addressed in any detail another explosive allegation: that cadets and instructors at California's firefighting academy for several years conspired to cheat on weekly exams.
Concerns about rampant cheating are laid out within 13 hours of audio recordings of witness interviews, leaked to The Sacramento Bee, that CHP investigators made during their probe. The recordings contain interviews with 11 people, a small number of the 163 interviewed. Those accounts, along with reports from two former cadets who came forward to speak about their own experiences, depict a culture in which test scores were routinely manipulated and exam answers widely circulated in an effort to graduate as many cadets as possible.
Among the allegations:
--Instructors held Sunday night "reviews" that gave students the questions and answers for exams that would be administered the next morning.
--Controls were so loose that students passed copies of tests to one another with the correct answers filled in.
--Instructors routinely tossed questions and added points, without written policy to guide their decisions.
The tests for Cal Fire, among the largest fire agencies in the nation, were administered during the academy's five-week basic firefighting course. They covered a range of topics, from how fires behave to rescue protocols and techniques for fighting wildland blazes and structure fires. As such, the allegations raise doubt on the training received by hundreds of firefighters between 2010 and 2014.
More broadly, the CHP interviews document concerns by top officials that the academy grappled with enforcing discipline, even as the department dispatched thousands of firefighters to battle epic blazes statewide. This year alone, wildfires scorched more than 307,000 acres and killed six people.
Browne's interview followed grim news a few months earlier that Sarah June Douglas, 26, had been stabbed and strangled inside the Elk Grove home she shared with former Cal Fire academy instructor Orville "Moe" Fleming. At the time, Fleming was 55 and a battalion chief who had taught at the Ione academy for five years.
Last June, a jury convicted Fleming of second-degree murder. He is serving a 16-years-to-life sentence at High Desert State Prison in Susanville.
CHP became involved when, shortly after the killing, Fleming's estranged wife said she had seen video of Douglas, who had been an escort, having sex with firefighters on trucks at the academy. That prompted Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott to commission the Highway Patrol investigation.
A confidential memo, obtained by The Bee, went out to academy employees and some cadets. The "Notice of Administrative Interrogation" advised recipients that CHP investigators would contact them to ask about alleged drinking on duty, sexual and dating relationships among Cal Fire employees, improper sexual activity and "improper and/or inappropriate testing procedures involving cadets, instructors or other members of Cal Fire."
The investigation ultimately cost $1.76 million. While it turned up no credible sex-tape evidence, officials said, it did uncover other misbehavior.
According to state disciplinary records, investigators also uncovered text messages Fleming had sent to three academy job candidates with promotional-interview questions and answers. All three, James Michels, Frank Schonig and Justin Chaplin, were promoted to captains, transferred to the academy and became instructors there.
The CHP investigation prompted a housecleaning. None of the academy instructors or administrators named in the disciplinary records reviewed by The Bee works there now. Michels, Schonig and Chaplin were demoted and transferred for reasons unrelated to testing issues. A dozen others have since retired, quit or suffered pay cuts and demotions. Several are appealing their punishments in civil court or before the State Personnel Board.
Pimlott recently declined an interview and issued a written statement: "When I became aware of the allegations of misconduct, including cheating, I turned the information over to CHP for investigation. Based on their findings, I took action on 16 personnel, including terminating the supervisor responsible for oversight of firefighter training at the academy."
Cal Fire declined to make available for interviews any of the employees named in this story because, spokeswoman Janet Upton said, the discussions could touch on personnel matters. The department also declined to authenticate records or answer detailed questions about testing at the academy.
For the first time, however, department officials acknowledged that testing security was sloppy.
"The Department took the allegations raised during the CHP investigation very seriously and took additional steps to tighten the security of testing materials and limit access to test questions and answers," Upton said in an email.
An essential foundation
Nestled in the hills just outside Ione, Cal Fire's 420-acre facility trains up to 500 people each year in cadres of up to 40 cadets, many of them seasoned professionals. Cadets in the basic training program receive classroom and field training over five weeks. Their book learning and real-world skills are tested on paper and in hands-on assessments throughout each course.
Cal Fire officials emphasized that the academy is just one facet of the training their employees receive.
"Informal training takes place daily, along with formal continuing education, annual basic knowledge assessments, and a three-year apprenticeship program with a minimum of 432 hours of required and supplemental training employees must complete," Upton said in an email. "Our training is an ongoing process that extends well beyond the ... academy training."
Two types of tests, however, are administered throughout the training and required for graduation. "Category I" exams, defined in the cadet handbook as testing essential safety skills, can be retaken once to achieve a passing mark of 80 percent. "Category II" tests evaluate "knowledge or skills identified as an essential foundation to a successful fire service career." There are no retakes on those tests, but a cumulative average score of 80 percent or better on Category II examinations is sufficient to graduate.
A Bee analysis of academy test scores between October 2005 and May 2015 shows few cadets were sent home. Of 1,622 assigned to the course over the last nine years, just 23, or 1.4 percent, washed out.
The notion that cheating played a role in the graduation rate came up during an interview with Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Phyllis Banducci at CHP headquarters on June 13, 2014. She declined to comment for this story.
A certified peace officer in charge of the department's cooperative fire, training and safety programs, Banducci came with a calendar and detailed notes. She referred to them often during the 93-minute discussion recorded by CHP investigators Lt. Andy Williams and Capt. Sam Dickson.
Banducci recalled a two-hour conversation with an academy instructor in a public park in El Dorado Hills on a Sunday afternoon, shortly after Fleming's arrest. That instructor, Capt. Ann Rosales, suspected Fleming had been sharing test questions and answers with students, Banducci said.
"Annie told me that if you looked at our test scores from when Moe started working there, you would see a direct correlation to our scores going up significantly," Banducci said.
"That's not related to his prowess as an instructor?" Williams asked, as his partner Beauchamp faintly chuckled.
"She believed (Fleming) was sharing information with (cadets)," Banducci said.
Williams: "But she had no evidence or proof?"
Banducci: "She says they do. You could look at the test scores and see that they've bumped up."
The average graduating class score from 2005 to May 2010, about a year after Fleming transferred to the academy, was 90.8 percent. After that, average test scores rose to 95.8 percent.
Scores for two groups that graduated after the department swept out its academy administration and instructors averaged 92.9 percent.
Banducci said Rosales also told her about an unnamed cadet who was allowed to retake a test in violation of academy policy. Rosales had failed the cadet for incorrectly reporting fire conditions presented to him on a computer display. Such reports are essential for dispatching appropriate equipment to the scene of a fire.
According to Banducci's recorded interview, Rosales said the academy's assistant chief grilled her about the test and ordered a retake. Rosales refused, Banducci said, so the assistant chief ordered another instructor to administer the retest.
"Of course, he passed that time," Banducci said.
'40 in, 40 out'
Mike Ramirez was promoted to the academy's assistant chief post in July 2012 and oversaw training during the period in question. In January, following the CHP probe, Ramirez was terminated for several alleged infractions, including drinking while on duty at a 2012 academy graduation celebration. He is fighting his dismissal, arguing that he has been punished too severely for behavior encouraged by his superiors. In an interview with The Bee, he was also adamant that the cheating allegations are off-base.
Ramirez said he remembered the test for the cadet Banducci referenced and acknowledged he ordered a retake, and said he reported his decision to his superiors.
"It was the first time this exam was delivered," Ramirez said, "and there were some bad portions written into it."
A battalion chief had reported the failure to Ramirez and offered that the student shouldn't be flunked because the test was flawed. "Tie goes to the runner," Ramirez said. "It was a brand new exam."
Ramirez had a motto for the students in his academies: "40 in, 40 out."
Browne, the test writer at the academy, was among those in Cal Fire who described it as a statement of priority, that moving bodies through the institution was more important than maintaining standards. "I think it became a thing of, 'We're going to get in here. We want to get promoted. Let's make ourselves look as good as possible,'" she told investigators.
Ramirez vehemently denied that assessment. He said in a recent interview that "40 in, 40 out," was his way of conveying commitment to "not leave anyone behind." When he took over training for the firefighting academy a few years ago, he said, he actually tightened lax standards that he uncovered, sometimes to the consternation of superiors.
"I preached that we were the last gatekeepers" to ensure cadets were competent, Ramirez said. "I told them I'd much rather see them sitting at home on the couch playing Xbox than get killed."
But sometimes, when too many students missed a question, Ramirez would order it tossed out and test scores altered, Browne told investigators. After a while, she said, instructors bypassed the formality of seeking his permission and went straight to the person in charge of test administration, Capt. Deanna Lyman, or to Browne.
Lyman retired from Cal Fire in January after CHP investigators alleged in their report, among other things, that she drank while on duty. The Bee could not reach her for comment.
Browne said she was ordered by instructors to make the score changes when Lyman was off duty.
"We have a (computer) program," Browne said, "and (the instructors would) just go in and add points to people's grades. ... They would basically come to us and Mike would just say, 'Yeah, do it.' So I guess it was Mike's approval, but we couldn't get them to write stuff down."
"Did it happen every test or the majority of them?" CHP investigator Beauchamp asked.
"Not every test," Browne said. "But a lot of them, yeah. Half."
Ramirez told The Bee that some test questions were discarded, but with good reason. A previous testing system randomly compiled exams from a bank of questions. But some questions weren't proper, Ramirez said, because they were outdated. The problems became apparent, he said, when the tests were graded.
So when the tests were reviewed, those questions were noted, Ramirez said, the reason for low scores was noted, and the questions were deleted from the test bank.
"The questions weren't written correctly or the material wasn't taught at all," Ramirez said. "The only time that scores were adjusted were with the old test generator."
Sunday night reviews
Failing the academy isn't necessarily a career death sentence. Cadets on probation are let go if they don't pass, but many students don't attend until they have been firefighters for many years. Some of the more-seasoned cadets come from local fire districts that enter service contracts with Cal Fire that convert their staff into state employees. Some, such as Cal Fire foresters whose jobs usually don't include firefighting, must go through the academy to satisfy their standing as public safety employees.
Unless they're still on probation, all cadets have full union and civil-service protections. Sometimes they've been in Cal Fire so long they outrank their academy instructors.
The relative lack of risk, among other things, diminishes the sense of urgency and accountability that cadets and instructors feel, then-academy Chief George Morris III told CHP investigators.
The subject came up during Morris' October 2014 interview with investigators Williams and Dickson. They told Morris that an unnamed instructor didn't "believe" in Cal Fire's zero-tolerance alcohol policy, didn't enforce it and had told them he didn't care if the director himself knew it.
Morris blamed the unnamed instructor's defiant attitude, in part, on decades of a culture that he said winks at discipline, fortified by union influence so entrenched that "you can't change the signage you put on a bathroom" without consultation.
"I like your academy," Morris, said, referring to the CHP's institution. "I wish we could do that. We would take them off the street (when) they're not represented yet. We (could) mold them into what we want.
"What I'm getting is somebody that has worked for five or six years, is represented, is a vested employee," he said. "For me to try to impart a culture, or what the culture should be for Cal Fire, is extremely difficult."
Two months later, as the department was preparing to punish more than a dozen of his subordinates, Morris was promoted to chief of Cal Fire's Nevada Yuba Placer Unit, headquartered in Auburn. He did not return phone messages from The Bee seeking an interview.
Cal Fire has a "zero tolerance policy for cheating on any exam, written or performance," according to its cadet handbook. Violations are cause to be "immediately terminated from the academy" with a letter explaining the expulsion shipped to the cadet's home-base superiors.
According to two former Cal Fire cadets, however, cheating was part of the culture fostered by the same leaders obligated to uphold standards. Both requested anonymity to avoid personal and professional reprisal.
The first former cadet belonged to the 35th academy class that attended in early 2013. His class met for instruction in a building roughly the size of two mobile homes, located a brisk five-minute walk from the chow hall, administration offices, dormitory and lecture halls that constitute the campus's core.
He said it was there, with the door locked, that Cal Fire instructors, including Fleming, took turns holding Sunday night "review" sessions.
The sessions, which usually started at 7 p.m., were actually previews, he said. The instructors read aloud test questions and answers, he said. "Nearly everyone" attended the review sessions even though they weren't on state time until Monday mornings.
"The next morning, those exact questions were on the test," he said.
After four weeks, the former cadet said, the Sunday night preview sessions ended, but the cheating didn't. Students passed around paper copies of old tests that they referred to as "intel," he said, and someone gave him a homemade CD that contained more test materials.
The Bee reviewed more than 100 pages of examinations and a CD he provided. The materials included hundreds of short-answer and fill-in-the-blank questions with the answers printed for each. The answers were circled on multiple-choice tests.
"It was contraband," he said. "Very hush-hush, but everyone knew about it."
He said he knew sharing test material was a violation of the cadet handbook ban on "using testing materials that have been passed down from previous classes," but that peer pressure pulled him along. He started recording the sessions as well, he said, and shared the audio with students who arrived late.
"I was just being part of the crew," he said. "Everything was like that. If you're on the fire grounds, you have to take a buddy to the bathroom. We ate together, studied together, all got up at same time, did chores together. ... We weren't individuals; we were all together."
What happens in Ione
Academy instructors encouraged secrecy, the former cadet said. They told his cadre, "What happens up here, stays up here," he recalled, and he interpreted the twist on the iconic Las Vegas marketing slogan as embracing discreet rule-breaking.
Despite the pressure to conform, he said, he was troubled by what he had witnessed. Still, he said he didn't file any complaints for fear of the repercussions. Later, disappointed that reports from the CHP's investigation failed to highlight the cheating, he approached The Bee with his story.
A second former cadet, who attended an academy later in 2013, also spoke of off-the-book Sunday night previews. But by then, the academy had brought in new test material, and the instructors didn't have advance copies to share, he said. Word around the academy was that the exams were more secure than before.
Instead, he recalled, the instructors would preview the tests themselves and recall from memory what questions the students should expect and the answers.
"Let's be clear, the tests weren't rocket science," the second former cadet said. Questions included such basics as how often to re-roll a fire hose.
Some of the questions were garbled, "Triple negatives, things like that," he recalled, and others were vague or the answer key was incorrect. If enough people missed a question, the instructors would toss it, he said.
Many of the questions seemed "trivial" and "didn't have anything to do with being a good firefighter," he said. "The instructors didn't want people failing over that stuff."
The second former cadet said he sensed that colleagues also were sharing test information. On more than one occasion, his classmates would correctly answer questions that weren't part of the curriculum. Then, prior to the final exam, a classmate read him a question and answer from a cellphone. "That's when I knew what was going on," he said.
The second cadet said he talked to The Bee because he felt the department unfairly punished the instructors after the CHP investigation. He said little happened at the academy without the knowledge and consent of superiors. At the same time, he said he felt conflicted about coming forward.
"I don't want to throw my department under the bus," he said. "And what's Cal Fire going to do when this comes out? Call everyone back to the academy? I don't think so."
Ramirez told The Bee that he knew about the Sunday night sessions, but that they were intended for curriculum review and to answer students' questions -- not to cheat.
"If I would have known, I certainly would have stopped it," he said.
After learning that cadets were passing around a class PowerPoint presentation, however, Ramirez said he ordered test security tightened "to mimic law-enforcement standards." He said he also ordered new curriculum materials and 3,000 exam questions that were pulled at random from a test bank. Even if cadets passed around old tests, they wouldn't have the new questions, he said.
"There was no way they could cheat after I took over command," Ramirez said. "Even I didn't have access to the tests."
The way test materials were handled did change during 2013, according to Browne, who handled the tests. Exams were printed a week in advance, Browne told investigators, instead of for the entire year. The published exams also were moved from a somewhat accessible area into a cabinet in her office, which she could lock.
The captain who proctored tests had one key to the cabinet and Browne hid the second key, she said. If someone needed to get into the cabinet in her absence, Browne would tell them where to find the hidden key.
"I try to move it around," she said, describing the security cat-and-mouse game. "I have noticed my old supervisor ... makes sure he knows where it is, but I try to move it, like, if I see he knows. ... They could still get into (the cabinet)."
"Do you think they still do?" an investigator asked.
"I haven't seen any evidence that they have. I'd like to think they're not," Browne said.
Asked how long it had been since test questions were thrown out, Browne referred to Douglas' May 1, 2014, killing.
"You know, honestly, after the Moe thing, it stopped," she said. "I think a lot of stuff changed."
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