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A top LAFD official fled a crash but got rewarded instead of disciplined

Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Fortman ignored him.

The deputy repeatedly pounded on the door, shouting, "Sheriff's Department, Sheriff's Department." Visible to the deputy through the door's glass panel, Fortman walked into the house and climbed the stairs to the second floor. He never came to the door, and the deputy eventually gave up.

The Sheriff's Department previously said the deputies did not enter Fortman's property to arrest him because they considered the incident a misdemeanor. Obtaining a misdemeanor arrest warrant at such a late hour — it was after 10:30 p.m. — is difficult, a Sheriff's Department spokesman told The Times days after the crash.

At a deputy's request, Fortman's girlfriend entered the home to speak to Fortman. She returned and told the deputy that Fortman had contacted an attorney, would not come out of the house and had not been drinking before the hit-and-run but had started to drink after arriving home.

In his report on the incident, the deputy wrote, "The only reason why he would leave the scene of the collision, and refuse to speak and hide from police, was to avoid being arrested for a DUI."

The next morning, Fortman visited the home of Alyssa Ward-Vela, the owner of one of the damaged cars, to say he was responsible for the incident and give her his insurance information. Ward-Vela's aunt, Kimberly Ward, said Fortman told her he lost control of the truck because he had diarrhea and had been vomiting.

According to Ward and the newly released records, Ward-Vela felt menaced by Fortman because he later appeared outside her home to confront a television news crew that was reporting on the hit-and-run. Ward-Vela subsequently obtained a temporary restraining order against Fortman, court records show.

The LAFD records state that Fortman denied confronting the news crew and that the temporary restraining order was dismissed after mediation with Ward-Vela.

The sheriff's investigation found a receipt that showed Fortman had bought a beer at Marci's, a sports bar, and closed his tab there about 10 minutes before the hit-and-run, according to the LAFD records. Later, the documents state, Fortman told LAFD investigators that he had visited another bar earlier in the day, and that he had four to five drinks during the six or seven hours before the incident, but was not drunk.

He also said he felt he had no legal obligation to speak to the deputies who went to his home the night of the crash because they already knew who he was and had impounded the Dodge, according to the LAFD investigative report.

A second deputy is quoted in the report as saying Fortman, at the time of the hit-and-run, "was intoxicated" and claimed to have begun drinking only after he was home so he would have an excuse if he failed a subsequent blood-alcohol test.

The report further recounted an unidentified witness as stating the hit-and-run put passersby in danger; the witness said, "there were live wires, people walking around them, they could have been deadly, and the power company moved everyone away when they arrived." One of the sheriff's deputies said, "Someone could have been electrocuted," the report states.

The Times obtained summaries of an LAFD investigator's interviews of Fortman, the first conducted about six weeks after the hit-and-run. In the summaries, Fortman described the incident as "unfortunate because it was unfortunate," denied being intoxicated and said the person knocking on his door that night did not identify himself as a sheriff's deputy.

The documents say the investigator related the girlfriend's reported comment that he was "probably drunk," and Fortman responded, "She did not say that." Asked if the deputy lied in his report about that, Fortman said, "Yea," according to the summaries.

He also said he did not start drinking once he returned home or call a lawyer that night but his sister might have contacted an attorney, the LAFD investigative report states.

Near the end of the second interview, Fortman is quoted as saying he wished he had managed the incident better and "deeply honestly" regretted fleeing the scene. And when asked if he had brought discredit to the department, he is reported to have replied, "Yes."

It was around the time of the first interview by the investigators that Fortman began collecting overtime at the COVID-19 task force. And he was still facing potential criminal charges.

A November 2020 report on the LAFD's inquiry proposed that Fortman be brought before the Board of Rights. The inquiry concluded that in addition to fleeing the scene, he was under the influence of alcohol, failed to ensure no one was injured and brought discredit onto the department. The following month, the LAFD filed its formal internal charges against Fortman. That should have led to the Board of Rights hearing at which punishment, if any, would have been determined.

In May of last year, and in exchange for the dismissal of the criminal charges against him, Fortman entered into a court-supervised diversion program that required him to make restitution for the property damage he caused, perform community service and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Fortman was licensed as a paramedic by the California Emergency Medical Services Authority. Records obtained by The Times show that the authority in August 2021 hit Fortman with the maximum possible fine for his conduct: $2,500. The agency found that Fortman violated a state code that forbids the "commission of any fraudulent, dishonest, or corrupt act which is substantially related to the qualifications, functions, and duties of prehospital personnel."

But the LAFD still did not set in motion a Board of Rights hearing.

"It makes me sick," Ward said, when informed that Fortman had evaded discipline. "He was not held to a certain standard that everybody else is. It's the way of the system."

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Controversy over how the LAFD deals with problem employees is nothing new. Audits dating to 1994 have found the department's disciplinary system to be plagued by uneven punishment in the ranks, faulty documentation of complaints and unreasonable delays in imposing penalties. A 2010 report by the LAFD's independent assessor found that some allegations of misconduct were ignored and others were allowed to languish until the statute of limitations expired.

 

The president of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, Battalion Chief Kristine Larson, said delays of months and even years in imposing discipline — to the point where those facing punishment could retire — have long been a problem among all ranks of LAFD firefighters. But it was especially pronounced among officers during the tenure of former Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who retired in March after 7 1/2 years in the top job, Larson said.

"He just did not believe in disciplining people — or certain people," she said.

Rebecca Ninburg served as an appointee of Mayor Garcetti on the Fire Commission from 2016 until August of this year.

"With the prior chief, top to bottom, there was no accountability whatsoever," she said. "The discipline was doled out unevenly. If they don't like you, they throw the book at you. If they do like you, you get a pass."

Ninburg placed much of the blame on Garcetti, who she said "caved" to the demands of the LAFD's two unions. "He just would never say no to them," she added. The leaders of the chiefs union declined to comment, and the head of the rank-and-file union did not respond to a request for comment.

Terrazas did not respond to messages seeking comment. Neither did Garcetti.

Fire Chief Kristin Crowley, Terrazas' successor, has been hailed by supporters as a reformer in the making. But she declined to discuss the Fortman case, saying in an email that she "will not be commenting on the previous administration's decisions." Under Terrazas, Crowley served as fire marshal and deputy chief.

From roughly the time of the hit-and-run to Fortman's retirement, the LAFD disciplined 79 employees, according to reports to the Fire Commission.

Five of the cases involved traffic accidents, and larger numbers resulted from misconduct that roughly echoed the allegations against Fortman. They included conduct unbecoming a firefighter, alcohol abuse and violating emergency medical service protocols. The internal inquiry alleged that Fortman breached the EMS protocols by fleeing the crash scene.

The commission reports contain no names and provide only brief summaries on the misconduct. None of the reports states that an employee had been charged with a crime, although one firefighter was suspended for four days for not informing the department of being named a suspect in a crime and five others were punished for alleged domestic violence. Ranks in the documents are reported in the broad categories of officer and non-officer, with the former meaning battalion chief and higher.

Forty-nine of the cases resulted in reprimands, 26 in suspensions and one in a firing. Three of the firefighters resigned, one of whom faced termination. Ten of the firefighters were officers. They included the lone employee who was fired — for an offense described only as "failure to meet conditions of employment."

The stiffest penalty imposed in the domestic violence cases was a 26-day suspension. The unnamed employee also drove with a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit and resisted and battered a police officer, according to LAFD records.

Around the time Fortman was settling his hit-and-run criminal case, a high-ranking LAFD officer reported to her superiors that the department's No. 1 administrative commander appeared to be intoxicated while he was overseeing the agency's operations center during the Palisades fire. Several LAFD members told The Times that the department initially tried to cover up the allegation against then-Chief Deputy Fred Mathis, who said he did nothing wrong.

Rather than have his office investigate, City Attorney Mike Feuer farmed the inquiry out to a private law firm. LAFD critics labeled that a stalling tactic and predicted that it would allow Mathis to avoid punishment by retiring or running out the clock on the statute of limitations.

Eight months later, the law firm concluded that Mathis was likely intoxicated on the day in question, but it cleared him through a rationale that outraged department insiders: It found that Mathis was "technically off duty" at the time because he declared himself out sick.

Mathis retired within days of the firm's findings and collected a $1.4 million payout in what the department said was unused leave for vacation, illness and holidays.

Some critics contrasted the LAFD's treatment of Mathis, who is white, with that of a low-ranking Black firefighter who was forced to resign last year after being accused — falsely, the firefighter asserted — of missing a mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

He had been required to attend the meeting because of a drunken driving arrest many years ago.

The Mathis case prompted the leaders of two organizations for Black and Latino firefighters as well as Larson's group for women to demand a federal investigation of what they said was long-standing racial bias in how the LAFD imposes discipline and awards promotions. The U.S. Justice Department subsequently said that it was "carefully reviewing" the complaints, but it has taken no public action in the 15 months since and has declined to comment on the status of any probe.

In the meantime, said Larson, higher-ups continued to escape punishment after being accused of misconduct.

"A lot of the chief officers skated," she said.

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©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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