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State's Pipeline Safety Chief Was Fired in April, Weeks Before Blast

June 03, 1989|PAUL JACOBS and CARL INGRAM | Times Staff Writers

- Two months ago, Arco, a major pipeline operator under Hernandez's jurisdiction, reported that he asked for and received a gift of dinner, drinks and tickets to a Sacramento Kings-Boston Celtics basketball game valued at $194.28. This violated the fire marshal's conflict-of-interest rules and state law requiring that such gifts be reported.

- In 1985, Hernandez ordered a subordinate, Les Johnson, to drive Hernandez's wife to Carson City, Nev., on state time and, along with Johnson, reported the time spent as official business.

In a point-by-point rebuttal to the charges, attorney Donahue asserted that the accusations are way off mark and that most are legally insufficient to justify firing.

Donahue conceded in the appeal document that Hernandez was "experiencing financial shortfalls because of real estate transactions," and was referred to an employee assistance counselor for help with his fiscal affairs.

Hernandez and his superiors then agreed to a plan under which he would resign his state position, withdraw his retirement in a lump sum, repay his loans and then reapply for his old position. The rehiring process included a background check that uncovered the alleged misconduct.

However, Donahue argued that the allegations were merely a pretext for firing Hernandez, who he said had been conducting an investigation of his own into the "suspicious" disappearance of fees paid by pipeline operators and intended for safety inspections.

Hernandez charged that state Fire Marshal James F. McMullen had illegally transferred the funds to agency programs "unrelated to pipeline safety."

Hernandez said he was repeatedly told by his superiors that the money couldn't be tracked anyway "because there were so many mirrors." During one discussion of the issue, Hernandez said, he was told that "none of this better leave this room."

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