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Report on Calif. fire engine at strip club raises more questions than answers

San Jose firefighters who stopped at the Pink Noodle said they could not recall going to a bikini bar afterwards


Photo/Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS

By Gabriel Greschler and Austin Turner
The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A day after the release of an internal probe into a San Jose fire crew’s infamous visit to the Pink Poodle strip club, experts in personnel investigations and the city’s former mayor are questioning the honesty of the employees involved in the incident — most of whom were not disciplined for behavior that appears to violate Fire Department policies.

While the investigation finally revealed the purported reasoning behind the visit to the Pink Poodle — Fire Capt. William Tognozzi claimed he was picking up a flash drive with images of his colleagues taken by a photographer who also worked at the strip club — it also indicated that firefighters never came clean about a subsequent visit to a second adult entertainment establishment.

The four firefighters — Tognozzi, Brian Dragges, Zach Clark and Matthew Westcott — initially told investigators that they had simply returned to their station after the visit to the Pink Poodle. But they were later confronted with GPS records showing the crew instead drove about 1.5 miles from the Pink Poodle to A.J.’s bikini bar on Lincoln Avenue, outside their station’s coverage zone.

[RELATED: Video of woman exiting Calif. fire truck in bikini at strip club prompts investigation]

All four of the firefighters insisted they could not recall that part of the trip. The investigation, however, concluded it is “more likely than not” that the two-minute stop at A.J.’s occurred at Tognozzi’s behest.

“Nobody has a recollection of that? I don’t buy that,” said former Mayor Sam Liccardo, a veteran of the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office. “As a formal criminal prosecutor, I want to resolve whether these individuals are lying or there is some factual discrepancy that is innocent. I don’t see that from this report.”

The former mayor, who was finishing up his term when the Pink Poodle incident occurred last October, had said at the time that “heads must roll” if the video was proven to be “as bad as it looks.” In the end, Tognozzi was demoted from fire captain to fire engineer, but the other three members of his crew were not disciplined.

The 100-page investigatory report was released after a lawsuit by the Bay Area News Group; a judge ruled in favor of disclosure in July. The incident rocked the city in October after a popular Instagram account called San Jose Foos posted a video from outside the Pink Poodle showing a bikini-clad woman emerging from the engine with the caption, “Only in San Jose do you see a stripper come out of a firetruck.”

On Tuesday, Liccardo also questioned language contained in the one-page memos that each firefighter submitted in their first, pre-investigation attempt to explain the incident, which are notably similar in the language that they use to describe why the truck was at the Pink Poodle.

“Any investigator should be carefully scrutinizing whether a story is cooked — and a remarkable consistency can draw as much suspicion as inconsistency,” he said.

Fire Chief Robert Sapien declined to comment for this article.

In a statement, City Manager Jennifer McGuire said, “This is an isolated incident that is highly unacceptable and should not overshadow the tireless work thousands of employees perform every day to serve our community, while being transparent, honest and ethical in every aspect of their job.”

McGuire also sought to justify the city’s initial refusal to release the report, which Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle found to violate California law. “The City takes great care to balance the privacy rights of reporting parties and witnesses to alleged misconduct in an effort to encourage employees and members of the public to raise concerns,” she said. “The City’s ability to conduct a complete and thorough investigation relies on the participation of reporting parties and witnesses to cooperate in the investigative process and we hope the release of the report does not detract from that.”

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan and the four firefighters involved in the incident also did not respond to requests for comment.

According to a timeline of the incident from Sapien released earlier this year, the four firefighters — along with the photographer who worked at the Pink Poodle — left their station at 9 p.m. They arrived six minutes later at the strip club, where a bikini-clad woman insisted to have a ride-along, which the crew assented to, though all maintained in their interviews with investigators that it made them feel uncomfortable.

The photographer was not named in the investigatory report and did not cooperate with the inquiry.

After circling the block for four minutes, the firefighters left the Pink Poodle and arrived at A.J.’s, where they stayed for two minutes before heading back to the station at 9:20 p.m.

When confronted with GPS data showing the stop at A.J.’s, Tognozzi told investigators, “I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t remember the second leg of the trip.” Another firefighter, Clark, said, “Yeah. I hear what you’re saying. I also don’t know why we went that way. Um, and I don’t know.”

Keith Rohman, a veteran workplace investigations attorney, said that the firefighters’ statements — combined with the GPS data that showed the truck stopped at A.J.’s — suggest that the firefighters broke department policy. The department’s code of conduct prohibits “the making of misleading entries or statements with the intent to deceive.”

“People have lied to me in the course of workplace investigations,” said Rohman. “Not all the time. But do I ever have GPS evidence to show they lied? No. That’s what makes this a unique situation. And a troublesome one.”

Expert opinion was mixed on whether Tognozzi should have been the only one punished. Rohman said it was “logical” that the city chose to focus on Tognozzi — and said he often sees the opposite, with lower-level employees getting in trouble while higher-ups are let off the hook.

But former Oakland Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann said he would have cast a wider net.

“At the minimum, anyone found to have violated department rules and regulations should end up with some record of such in their file,” said Hoffmann, who served with Oakland’s department for almost 40 years.

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