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2 L.A. Fire Department commanders allege retaliation for reporting misconduct

In their whistle-blower lawsuit, the officials say they were transferred out of the department's Arson Counter-Terrorism Section after they raised concerns. They have since been transferred back.

July 10, 2009|Robert J. Lopez

Two top commanders in the Los Angeles Fire Department's arson and counterterrorism unit are alleging retaliation for alerting superiors about misconduct, including at least one false arrest and fabrication of evidence, according to court records and interviews with sources.

Battalion Chief John Miller and Capt. Michael Rueda say they were transferred out of the department's Arson Counter-Terrorism Section after disclosing "violations of state or federal statutes" by members of the unit, according to a complaint filed in Superior Court.

The filing does not specify the type of misconduct raised by the two commanders. But two Fire Department sources familiar with the case said Miller and Rueda told authorities that investigators made at least one false arrest and fabricated evidence in a case, among other things.

"I think that's in the general spectrum of the types of misconduct that we reported," said attorney Marla A. Brown, who represents Rueda.

The July 1 lawsuit follows a city audit released in January that criticized arson investigators for poor record keeping, failing to pursue leads and not analyzing crime trends. The audit was conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department, which works closely with arson investigators.

"There were investigative deficiencies with evidence collection, canvassing for witnesses, interviewing all possible witnesses and exhaustive identification and follow up on investigative leads that potentially resulted in missed opportunities to advance and clear investigations," the audit found.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified financial damages, does not disclose whether Miller and Rueda were working with auditors. But Brown said, "that's clearly implied."

She said both men have been transferred back to the arson unit. But she said they are now the subjects of internal affairs investigations that are part of the department's alleged pattern of retaliation. "This is a whistle-blower lawsuit," Brown said.

Both men have been with the department for more than 30 years. Miller is the head of the arson unit and Rueda is one of his supervisors. Rueda is the brother of Fire Department Deputy Chief Mario D. Rueda.

The suit alleges that the men had their handguns taken away after they reported misconduct. Arson investigators are considered peace officers and carry weapons.

Miller and Rueda also received threats after raising their concerns, according to the lawsuit.

"We believe it was somebody that felt threatened by what they were doing," Brown said.

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robert.lopez@latimes.com

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