Chief ousted in cheating scandal vents about Cal Fire’s ‘secret police’
Assistant Chief Jeff Isaacs argues that he is being made an example of, and called the standards investigators Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott's "secret police"
By Adam Ashton
The Sacramento Bee
FRESNO, Calif. — A high-ranking state firefighter with 24 years of experience was compelled to resign last month because his department believed he helped a fire captain cheat on a test that the captain failed.
Jeff Isaacs' ouster as an assistant chief for the department's Fresno unit is a sign of the tough line Cal Fire has taken on discipline since a 2014 investigation revealed sex-related misconduct and inappropriate drinking at its fire academy. It's building up a professional standards program while simultaneously enhancing its resources for internal investigations.
For a moment, the charge that Isaacs helped someone cheat also threatened promotions for dozens of captains who had taken an exam in November 2016 to promote to battalion chief. Cal Fire last year sought to void the entire test -- throwing out scores for 289 successful candidates on the cusp of summer fire season -- when a group of chiefs from Mariposa and Merced counties accused Isaacs of tainting the exam by coaching a single applicant.
The case against Isaacs centered on a 23-minute phone conversation he had with a former subordinate at Cal Fire's Atwater station after Isaacs learned that he would sit in on interview panels for the exam.
The promotion candidate, Capt. Scott Phillips, told an investigator that Isaacs recommended that he study certain subjects, like tree mortality and what to do if a firefighter was injured on an incident.
Isaacs, 44, insists that never happened. He argues the department is making an example of him, and called the new standards investigators Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott's "secret police."
The dispute is laid out in a 68-page investigation conducted by a retired battalion chief who wrote that he didn't fully trust Isaacs' or Phillips' accounts. He wrote that he leaned toward accepting Phillips' story because the captain had less of an incentive to "be deceitful."
"Your dishonesty," Pimlott wrote to Isaacs in a disciplinary letter, "demonstrates you do not accept responsibility for your misconduct and indicates you are likely to engage in same/similar misconduct in the future."
But Isaacs' union sees the case differently.
Phillips never produced the notes he said he took from the phone call. Instead, the union thinks the department overreacted while trying to demonstrate that it had learned from its academy mishaps.
"Jeff Isaacs was railroaded," said Mike Lopez, president of Cal Fire's firefighter union. "I'm very disappointed that a veteran of 24 years of the fire service had his career cut short because of hearsay with no physical evidence."
Cal Fire suspicious of Atwater tests
Phillips and Isaacs worked together at the department's Atwater station in 2009, when Isaacs was the station's battalion chief. Phillips had worked as a professional firefighter in Atwater since 1995 and been promoted to captain in 2005. He took an exam to promote to battalion chief in 2014 but failed badly, according to the investigation.
Isaacs left Atwater for an assistant chief position Fresno. He applied to move to a position in Mariposa County near his home last year, but his interview did not go well.
In that interview, a Cal Fire unit chief put Isaacs on the spot about rumors that he had inappropriately coached a group of Atwater firefighters for a promotion exam, according to the investigation. The firefighters scored better than their supervisors expected, and the chiefs pointed to Isaacs.
Isaacs said he did not help the candidates. The department could not prove he helped them, either.
Nonetheless, that allegation shaped Cal Fire's investigation into whether he gave test questions to Phillips.
It's common for firefighters to form study groups to help each other prepare for tests. They're supposed to make any material they develop together available to others, and they can't get help from people with direct knowledge of what questions will be on an exam.
The Bee in 2016 reported on one group formed by some of Cal Fire's top statewide leaders. They shared their notes with junior-ranking firefighters in a confidential file. None of them were punished, in part because the department changes test questions regularly so the material the senior officers handed down was not necessarily relevant to new tests.
Phillips decided to try for a promotion again in 2016. He reached out to other captains studying for the test, as well as higher-ranking chiefs.
Phillips called Isaacs, too.
By the time they connected, Isaacs had been appointed to a promotion panel, received interview questions and been instructed not to discuss them with anyone. Further, he was instructed not to even tell anyone that he was on a promotion panel.
Isaacs said he rejected Phillips' request for help when they talked. Isaacs said he told Phillips he was appointed to a promotional panel, and could not discuss anything about it.
Then, "We played catch-up for 20 minutes," Isaacs said.
A scoring mistake
In February, Cal Fire told Phillips that he had aced the test, scoring in its top rank and assuring him a promotion.
He contacted Isaacs to share the good news, but Isaacs told him it was a mistake. Isaacs said Phillips should expect a revised score because the department had made an error and many applicants who thought they passed the test did not.
In Atwater, Phillips told his supervisors about the scoring error. He mentioned that he'd been in touch with Isaacs, which alarmed two supervisors because they were familiar with the previous instance in which Cal Fire leaders believed Isaacs inappropriately helped promotion candidates.
One of them, Division Chief Mark Lawson, asked Phillips a question from the exam involving how to coordinate air assets in a wildfire. Lawson believed Phillips should not have known the answer to the question because he had not worked on that kind of fire.
Phillips answered correctly, raising Lawson's suspicion, according to the investigation. The investigation does not say why Lawson knew the air asset question was on that promotion exam.
Lawson reported his concern up the chain of command. Over three interviews, Phillips revealed that Isaacs had suggested he study certain subjects and that Phillips later realized those tips were relevant to the exam. Eventually, Phillips suggested that Isaacs helped with all of the questions he faced.
"A lot of the interview questions were spot on," Phillips told the investigator in one of the interviews.
Cal Fire took Lawson's complaint seriously. It announced in May that it would wipe out the test results for everyone who took it, setting back promotions for dozens of qualified candidates.
The firefighter union appealed that decision, and won a ruling at the State Personnel Board reinstating the scores.
Past Cal Fire personnel scandals hung over that hearing. A year earlier, the same board had scolded Pimlott and said the department needed a change in tone "at the top."
This time, the board praised Pimlott for bringing forward his concerns about the exam.
"The fact that you identified your problem and fixed it is a significant improvement over where you've been," board member Patricia Clarey said.
In the end, Phillips did not pass the promotion exam.
He scored a rank below the spot that would guarantee a promotion. He still works in Atwater and he did not return calls for comment.
Threatened with termination, Isaacs last month accepted a deal requiring him to resign from a job that paid him $146,000 in 2016. He's too young to start receiving the pension he earned from his career in state government.
He points to Phillips' final score on the exam to make the case that he didn't help the captain on the test.
"If I gave him the questions and the answers, why didn't he score better?" Isaacs asked.
Copyright 2018 The Sacramento Bee