Two key Los Angeles Fire Department commanders called for a full investigation of a 2004 incident in which firefighters laced a black colleague's meal with dog food, but top officials chose not to dig deeper.
The commander who collected written statements from firefighters in the case also believed they were attempting to cover it up, according to confidential department records reviewed by The Times.
Battalion Chief Steven J. Coleman, who supervised the station where the incident occurred, strongly recommended that a broader investigation be immediately launched.
Such an inquiry, Coleman wrote, would "send a clear message to all concerned members of the department's view of this heinous action, and head off any adverse public reaction or legal action."
But top commanders decided the case without conducting a deeper probe that might have helped determine if what had happened to firefighter Tennie Pierce was racially motivated, as he now charges in a lawsuit against the city. A full inquiry -- known in the department as an advocate investigation -- would have exposed the firefighters to interrogation by officers trained in internal affairs.
Instead, Deputy Chief Andrew Fox, commander of the Bureau of Operations, which oversees departmentwide discipline, recommended suspending the two captains and a firefighter considered most culpable.
Records and interviews show that the firefighters were never formally questioned. And their explanation that the incident with the 6-foot-5-inch Pierce occurred after a volleyball game helped form the basis for the Fire Department's final recommendation.
"This incident occurred as a result of Firefighter Pierce declaring himself Big Dog," Fox wrote, "and members under Captain [Christopher] Burton's command played a practical joke in order to humble him."
Fox did not respond Thursday to calls for comment.
In recent weeks, Pierce's racial discrimination and retaliation lawsuit has roiled City Hall and led to the resignation of Fire Chief William Bamattre, hired a decade ago to reform a force that even then was riven by accusations of racism, sexism and cronyism. The City Council agreed last month to settle the Pierce case for $2.7 million, only to have Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa veto the offer after a flood of criticism over the size of the award and the revelation of photos showing that Pierce had joined in some firehouse hazing episodes.
Relatively few details of the Fire Department's own review of the case have surfaced publicly, but the records and interviews with department sources offer an inside look at how fire officials handled the incident.
The documents also shed light on an internal disciplinary process that a recent city audit found to be plagued by "pervasive and systemic" problems including "inadequate investigation, poorly trained advocacy and arbitrary penalties" that make it difficult to determine the extent of racial and sexual harassment.
"The LAFD's system of administering employee discipline fails to meet the city policy standard of fair, equitable, progressive discipline," according to an executive summary of the Personnel Department audit.
The Pierce case began Oct. 14, 2004, at Fire Station 5 in Westchester. Firefighters allegedly started laughing while Pierce ate a spaghetti dinner laced with dog food. He said in his lawsuit that he realized something was wrong and left the room.
Afterward, Capt. Burton and Capt. John Tohill, the station supervisors, met in their office with the other firefighters and decided not to say anything to Coleman, Fox wrote in discipline reports for the two supervisors.
"The members of Fire Station 5 attempted to conceal the act," Fox said in a subsequent discipline report for a firefighter who was found to have mixed the dog food in the meal.
Pierce went off duty the next morning, was injured on a subsequent shift and took some time off. After he returned to work, he told the chief of another battalion what had happened.
On Nov. 17, that chief passed the information to Coleman, who then reached Pierce at his home, records show.
Pierce said he wanted disciplinary actions to be taken against the white captains and Latino firefighter. He also asked to be transferred and to see a department psychologist, the battalion chief wrote, "for assistance with issues he had in dealing with what had been perpetrated against him."
Coleman subsequently asked the 10 or so firefighters who were present during the dinner to state in writing what had happened, according to records and interviews with sources who spoke on the condition that they not be identified because they had not been authorized to make public comments.