L.A. Times sues for records on LAFD chief deputy who was reportedly drunk on duty
The suit alleges that the city violated the California Public Records Act by denying requests for documents regarding former Chief Deputy Fred Mathis
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Times has filed a lawsuit against the city that seeks to force Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office and the Fire Department to release numerous internal records in the case of a high-ranking fire official who was reported to be drunk on duty during a major blaze but faced no discipline and retired with a $1.4 million payout.
Filed late Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, the suit alleges that the city violated the California Public Records Act by denying the newspaper’s requests for an investigative report and other documents regarding former Chief Deputy Fred Mathis, who was the department’s top administrative commander.
Mathis was reported to be under the influence during last May’s Palisades Fire while overseeing the department’s operations center at City Hall East. Critics of then-Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas contended that he and other officials attempted to cover up the incident by not filing a complaint about Mathis’ conduct for three days and allowing someone to make a retroactive entry in city timekeeping records to show he was out sick when he was allegedly intoxicated at work.
The episode was kept under wraps until The Times disclosed it in a July story, which touched off a furor inside and outside the department. Rather than conduct its own investigation, City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office farmed out an inquiry into Mathis’ behavior to a private law firm, a move the critics said was also intended to keep the public in the dark.
The Times later reported that Mathis had accessed the department’s complaint tracking system while he was under investigation. The system contained sensitive information about his case, including the names of witnesses. A question of whether Mathis misused that information became part of the law firm’s probe.
The investigation dragged on until January, and the city refused to release a full report on its findings, which cleared Mathis. Within days of the inquiry’s conclusion, Mathis retired on a roughly $225,000 annual pension and received nearly $293,000 in what the department said was unused time off for illness, holidays and vacation. He collected about $1.1 million that the city put aside while he was enrolled in a controversial program that aims to keep police officers and firefighters on the job past retirement age.
The critics had predicted that the city would “run out the clock” on the inquiry until Mathis left, that he would face no discipline, and that the report would be buried.
Mathis has told The Times in an email that he did nothing wrong and was treated unfairly by the department.
The city has maintained that the records The Times sought are legally exempt from disclosure because releasing them would violate Mathis’ privacy rights and attorney-client privilege. In its suit, however, The Times asserts that the exemption does not apply in the Mathis case.
“Under a body of law that goes back almost 45 years, public agencies, including the city, must disclose government records reflecting well-founded allegations of misconduct against public employees such as Mathis and Terrazas,” the 18-page filing states.
Kelly Aviles, an attorney representing The Times, said, “The public has a right to oversee how the government responds to these issues and agencies can’t evade disclosure requirements by vague claims of exemptions.”
The suit is known as a petition for a writ of mandate and declaratory relief. It asks the court to order the immediate release of the records and to direct the city to pay The Times’ legal fees.
In addition to withholding the records, Garcetti and his representatives have declined to answer many questions about the Mathis case, as have Feuer and his spokesman, Rob Wilcox. Feuer is running for mayor, and Wilcox is a candidate for city controller.
Wilcox said in an email Tuesday that Feuer’s office will review The Times’ lawsuit “and have no further comment at this time.” Garcetti’s office and the LAFD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Leaders of three organizations that represent Black, Latino and women firefighters say the city’s handling of the Mathis affair reflects a deep-seated pattern of preferential treatment for department chiefs, especially if they are white or men, and a lack of transparency in such matters. Much of their criticism has been echoed by two of the five members of the civilian Fire Commission — Rebecca Ninburg and Jimmie Woods-Gray.
Terrazas, who retired last month, has denied that Mathis or other chiefs received special treatment. Among the questions he did not answer is whether Mathis had been required to undergo a urinalysis for alcohol or drug use, as department rules mandate.
The law firm’s rationale in clearing Mathis outraged department insiders. The firm, Yasinski & Jones of Pasadena, concluded that Mathis “was technically off duty while he was likely intoxicated as he had put himself out sick” that day, according to a brief summary of the findings the department released in February.
Mathis has declined to be interviewed. In a written response to emailed questions from The Times, he said, “All of the allegations you have presented to me are false and unsubstantiated through the investigation initiated by the department.”
He acknowledged that he was struggling with alcoholism at the time, and he said his privacy was violated and his reputation damaged when Terrazas discussed his need for treatment with other department officials and the firefighters union. In an emailed response, Terrazas said, “At no point was confidentiality violated during this investigation.”
Mathis spent his last seven months with the LAFD on paid leave for what the department said was “continuous trauma to an extremity.” The nature of the trauma was not detailed. Worker compensation records for Mathis are among those The Times is seeking.
Apart from the complete investigative report, the city has denied the newspaper’s request for the original complaint against Mathis; the identification numbers of the LAFD vehicle assigned to him; vehicle entry and exit logs and security camera footage for the City Hall East parking structure; and security camera footage of the interior and pedestrian entrances and exits of the LAFD operations and dispatch centers. The Times asked for that material to determine precisely when Mathis and his vehicle were at City Hall East during the Palisades fire.
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