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Rising star caught in turmoil at the LAFD

A deputy chief's job may be on the line because he failed to order a detailed probe of a bias claim.

February 12, 2007|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

For most of his 26 years with the Los Angeles Fire Department, the only heat Andy Fox had to endure came from burning buildings. Not so in recent times.

As the man in charge of discipline within the LAFD, Fox has come under scrutiny for not formally investigating a firehouse prank that escalated into a discrimination case and roiled City Hall, causing Fire Chief William Bamattre to step down.

Although Fox had long been considered a rising star in the department and possible successor to the chief, some insiders now question whether he will retain his position.

Supporters describe him as an "agent of change" who has fought hard to end racism, harassment and retaliation at the department. Others say his leadership -- or lack thereof -- has actually allowed problems to persist.

Those who like Fox see an energetic, affable and committed public servant who serves not only as a Los Angeles deputy chief but also as the elected mayor of Thousand Oaks.

"He's very bright. He's progressive. And he's a man of integrity," said Jay Grodin, who was president of Los Angeles' civilian Board of Fire Commissioners under then-Mayor James K. Hahn.

Critics, some of whom have legal action pending against Fox, see him as a self-promoter who plays favorites and bullies those who disagree or get in his way. He has also been accused of improperly merging his professional and political lives, as when he appeared in a campaign brochure wearing his uniform.

Fox, 48, declined a request from The Times to talk about department discipline or respond to critics, saying that city lawyers had advised him against making any public comment.

As head of the department's Bureau of Operations, Fox had a relatively low profile in Los Angeles until the Tennie Pierce case made headlines late last year. Pierce was an African American firefighter whose white colleagues had secretly put dog food in his spaghetti sauce at a firehouse dinner one night in 2004. What they claimed was a prank Pierce took as an act of discrimination.

Despite the recommendations of two lower-level Fire Department commanders that the incident be formally examined in an "advocate investigation," Fox chose not to launch the detailed inquiry. Instead, he quietly disciplined two captains and a firefighter.

Pierce subsequently filed a discrimination suit that the City Council agreed to settle for $2.7 million until Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the deal in November amid a public outcry over the amount and the disclosure that Pierce himself had engaged in hazing.

Whatever reason Fox had for stopping short of ordering a full investigation, those who know him insist it had nothing to do with race. They say he is especially attuned to issues of discrimination because his wife is African American.

Fox's public profile is much higher in Thousand Oaks, where he has been elected to four City Council terms and currently serves as mayor. But there he also contends with a handful of vocal critics. In 2005 Philip E. Gatch, then city manager of Thousand Oaks, accused Fox of forcing him to resign. At the request of the City Council, the Ventura County district attorney launched an investigation to determine, among other things, whether a private meeting between Fox and Gatch before his resignation violated the state's open meeting law. Fox was cleared of any wrongdoing.

More recently, one of Fox's political opponents, Debbie Gregory, filed a complaint against him for campaign brochures distributed in the 2002 and 2006 elections. The brochures feature Fox and his youngest son dressed in firefighting gear. In one photo, they are seated in a firetruck.

Gregory said the ads appear to violate a Fire Department rule against using "the uniform, badge or prestige of the department ... to attempt to influence the vote of any person."

When The Times asked fire officials if the brochures violated department rules, acting Chief Douglas L. Barry issued a statement saying that the matter was "being reviewed."

A source close to Fox, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 2006 picture was taken on a privately owned firetruck used as a prop in movies. The uniforms he and his son were wearing also were unofficial, the source said. In the 2002 photo, however, Fox is wearing his LAFD uniform and helmet, adorned with his battalion chief's badge. But the shot shows Fox in profile, the source said, so the department emblem isn't seen.

Several recent lawsuits have been critical of Fox's role in the disciplinary process. In a suit last year, a probationary firefighter accused Fox of abusing his authority by failing to recuse himself from a matter that involved a longtime acquaintance. Firefighter James Smith alleged that Fox coerced him into resigning over an off-duty incident in Thousand Oaks without divulging that he had a potential bias in the case.

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