A private school run by a Los Angeles city fire captain to tutor firemen for key department promotional tests has come under attack following an investigation into allegations that he may have leaked questions on a recent Civil Service exam to his students.
While a city investigation has concluded that there is no evidence of wrongdoing, the city Personnel Department has recommended throwing out the essay portion of the exam and giving it again.
A 10-page report summarizing a joint investigation by the Personnel and Fire departments cites certain "unexplained" events as well as "nagging questions with regard to the degree of specificity of some of the information given during the final hours before the test."
Many of the nearly 500 firefighters who took the exam do not want to take it over, and the Fire Commission has taken the position that without a finding of wrongdoing, the test should be allowed to stand.
But the Personnel Department contends that the "re-administration of the essay portion of the test is a necessary price to pay to restore that highest level of confidence in the integrity of the examination process which has, in fact, been lost."
It is up to the city Civil Service Commission to decide whether to cancel the exam. A hearing is scheduled for today.
The dispute centers on the activities of Capt. Russell Weck and his controversial school, known as "Weck Tech," which charges an enrollment fee of $2,300 a student.
The school has long been criticized by the Personnel Department, which is recommending that the Civil Service Commission give "clear written indication" to the Fire Commission "of the degree of disfavor" with which it regards "the type of coaching school known as 'Weck Tech.' "
On several occasions since the late 1970s, the personnel staff has notified the Fire Department of its opposition to Weck Tech, based on the fact that it is run by a city employee who charges a substantial fee and employs highly subjective admission standards.
Among the 61 enrollees in a Weck training program for a Jan. 10 captain's exam were five firefighters who have told city officials of "their concerns regarding perceived examination improprieties," according to the city report. Their concerns arose partly from telephone calls several of them got the day before the test. In the calls, Weck told students about "information on several specific topics to study," the report said.
Three firefighters finished the exam and then reported what they believed were possible improprieties to their superiors. Two others protested the exam by walking out of the test when they said they discovered four essay questions that they believed Weck had given them on the phone the day before. The four questions account for 39.5% of the examination.
After investigating allegations about the phone calls, the personnel staff concluded in its report:
"Not withstanding the fact that many issues described by Capt. Weck in his final round of phone calls did not appear on the examination, there is a high degree of 'coincidence' involved in this case, no matter what viewpoint or explanation is accepted as most credible."
Weck told The Times that his intensive, wide-ranging course is designed to prepare the department's most highly rated firefighters for any conceivable exam question. He said it is "sheer coincidence" if some of the questions he posed were similar to ones on the examination.
Graduates of his school describe Weck as a dynamic, effective teacher--sometimes arrogant or abrasive--but a man of high integrity who would never condone cheating.
The five firefighters who reported their concerns about possible improprieties are also exceptionally talented and trustworthy men, according to department spokesman Tony DiDomenico.
Two of these firefighters, Andy Valencia and Steven Vizcaino, who hold the rank of inspector, said they were immediately suspicious about the pointers Weck gave them during a phone call the afternoon before the exam. The two men took notes on the information Weck gave them during the call and have provided these notes to investigators and to The Times.
"The degree of detail that they (Valencia and Vizcaino) recall (about the phone call from Weck), and the '11th-hour' nature of the call they received, when coupled with the direct phrasing they recall in Capt. Weck's manner of speech, all combined to create a climate of concern," the report stated.
In an interview, Vizcaino said: "I stopped him (Weck) because it was getting so detailed and I said, 'Where are you getting your information?' And he said, 'Don't ask any questions. I was praying for something like this.' "
According to the report, a third firefighter also got a call from Weck. The report states that when this firefighter asked Weck where he got his information, Weck responded that he could not talk about it over the phone.