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An Affront to Due Process

November 06, 1987

The Los Angeles Fire Department Board of Rights has closed its hearing into charges of sexual harassment against a firefighter based at a Westchester station despite requests from the accused man that the hearing be open. Once again, a government agency, however well-intentioned, has misguidedly taken it upon itself to decide what the public should know and how the interests of justice are best served. The decision should be reversed before the hearing resumes Nov. 16.

If it goes forward with the closed hearing, the board risks violating firefighter Anthony Morales' rights to due process. Morales himself asked that the hearings be open. He is guaranteed a full, fair and impartial hearing under the city charter, and Morales could have strong grounds to challenge the results of any hearing that does not meet that test. Furthermore, the public cannot judge whether he is fairly treated if it cannot attend the hearing.

In contrast to this rights board decision, the Los Angeles Police Department regularly holds its disciplinary hearings in public. The same day the board of rights made its agoraphobic ruling, the police department was conducting--in public--a hearing involving officers charged with sexual misconduct on the job.

The rights board acted under a provision of the Fire Department manual that gives the board authority to close hearings "in the interest of justice." The provision is unduly vague; it does not define the kind of exceptional circumstances that would merit closing a hearing, especially when the accused wants it open. The Board of Fire Commissioners, which oversees the department, should change that part of the manual promptly.

Judging from the statement of Capt. John F. Kirkorn, the department wants to close the hearing in part to protect the privacy of its chief witness. That witness, reportedly a woman who was completing her stint as a probationary firefighter, did not file the charges herself but allegedly was harassed by a nude firefighter while she was lifting weights in a dormitory room. Those charges surfaced only after an investigation conducted at Westchester's Station 5 because a female paramedic complained that firefighters there regularly watched sexually explicit films on the station's television.

Any quasi-judicial proceeding places alleged victims in the spotlight as searingly as it does the accused. That is the painful nature of the process of learning the truth--truth that can only approach credibility if it is examined in public.

If sexual harassment is a problem in a department that is still adjusting to the presence of increasing numbers of women as firefighters and paramedics, then it must be halted. But it cannot be halted until the extent of any problem is learned. A fair and open hearing for Anthony Morales offers a place to start.

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