Friday, April 25, 2014

The chief takes a walk: Allegations focused on former Chief Lacher

From page A1 | April 05, 2013 | 18 Comments

Editor’s note: This is part I of a two-part story about the departure of El Dorado County Fire District Chief Bruce Lacher.

It’s been a tough few years for the El Dorado County Fire District as it has struggled with shocking financial disclosures, sexual harassment lawsuits, a fire chief who left after a vote of no confidence, and a board of directors that was surprised to learn of the large deficit.

With the latitude given to EDCFD Chief Bruce Lacher, it took his departure, along with the board being told the district was $1.6 million in the red, for reality to sink in.

Ignoring the warning signals

According to different parties, there were plenty of alarms going off at EDCFD of impending problems, although few in the district seemed to be paying attention.

The alarms came in the form of employee lawsuits and complaints, a new board member questioning the district’s finances, and a big decline in the district’s main source of revenue — property taxes.

One source of the district’s difficulties were claims of sexual harassment, bias and financial abuses by accounting technician Sheryl Calfee, who has worked for the district since 2005.

Lacher referred to Calfee as the “gum on the bottom of his shoe” after he was forced to investigate her complaint of sexual harassment by one of his battalion chiefs. Once the investigation was concluded, the battalion chief was allowed to retire without punishment.

However, Calfee’s husband, Steve, maintains that didn’t end the problem and says his wife went on to suffer retaliation and additional harassment from different fire chiefs, board members and other staff who in turn made complaints of their own against Calfee.

Steve Calfee claims his wife became a target, due to her sexual harassment complaint as well as her becoming a whistleblower who detailed what she described as financial abuses by the “white shirts” in the office, i.e. upper management.

Such alleged abuses included not turning in receipts for credit card purchases, exceeding purchase limits and then not reimbursing the district for the difference, buying expensive uniforms at district expense shortly before retiring, and taking off days but not counting them as vacation so they could be cashed out at the end of the year.

A visit to the DA

Calfee said his wife passed on this public information not only to the union but to former board member Mike Dennis, who he said was one of the few people willing to listen and respond to her complaints.

However, feeling stonewalled by EDCFD’s response, Calfee decided to take it a step further and took the information to the office of the El Dorado County District Attorney. Later Dennis met with them as well.

District Attorney Vern Pierson and deputy district attorney James Clinchard confirmed Calfee filed a complaint to investigate financial improprieties at the fire district.

But Clinchard said they closed their investigation after not seeing any evidence of criminal activity.

“Generally the nature of the allegations had to do with, if true, we would characterize as malfeasance,” commented Pierson, saying that there were no accusations that anything more criminal than that was involved. “That’s classic civil grand jury stuff.”

Calfee said he later filed a complaint with the civil grand jury, but he doesn’t know what they did with it. The grand jury was disbanded on Feb. 22 without making a report. Its proceedings are confidential unless they issue a report.

A pariah on the board

Mike Dennis, who served briefly on the EDCFD board, also went to the DA’s office and made a complaint. He claims his activities turned him into a pariah among the other board members after he tried to bring certain problems to light.

Dennis said his involvement in district politics dates back to when he was appointed to fill someone else’s term of office on the EDCFD board in 2011. He was encouraged to take the position by district firefighters, including his son, who is a firefighter-paramedic with the district and also a vice president of the firefighters union.

Dennis said he first learned of the district’s problems when he received an anonymous letter claiming a series of improprieties by Lacher and some of the other battalion chiefs. He also received information from Sheryl Calfee, who, he said, was relieved that someone was finally interested in the information she had.

But he said when he tried to bring up certain items or have them agendized at board meetings, he was blocked at every turn by Lacher or the district’s counsel, Bill Wright. He said he was also shunned by the other board members who increasingly made him feel like a leper.

“The public doesn’t know about these things and that’s why they get away with it,” he said, noting that the fire district is like a “good ol’ boys club” and he wasn’t a member.

Dennis said he made the rounds including contacting the DA, Superior Court Judge Doug Phimister and county Auditor-Controller Joe Harn. In an e-mail to Dennis, Harn acknowledged the district made a mistake in deciding to hire more firefighters rather than internal professional accounting services.

Dennis went on to say he didn’t think anyone stole any money. Instead he thinks it’s more a case of misuse of district money. He accused Lacher of taking off hours every week for baseball practice with his daughter but not counting it as vacation time. He said when Lacher was questioned about it, he was told Lacher told his staff to subtract the time, but Dennis doesn’t believe it ever happened. ”He’s very slick, very likeable, very shrewd …”

Dennis said he thinks the other “white shirts” do the same thing — accrue plenty of vacation hours that they cash out at the end of the year rather than account for when it’s used.

“They are accruing these vacation days like crazy, up to 500-540 hours a year,” he said. “When the chief retires he said he would use his vacation time as income. That represents $44,000 of accrued money. That’s a lot of money. But he lied about that because now he’s filed a Workman’s Compensation claim. And all that vacation money will end up in his pocket, too. Plus he got a 5 percent annual increase in January even though he’s not on the job.”

Dennis claims all this was allowed to happen because the other members of the board were inattentive. He noted that when Lacher received a 94 percent no-confidence vote by the union, the board described it as a “bargaining tactic.”

He said what really brought everything to a head was when the board asked the firefighters to take a cut in pay and benefits while Lacher and the battalion chiefs got raises. That triggered an investigation by the union into the district’s finances, a vote of no-confidence in the chief and ultimately the revelation of the district’s huge deficit.

Still angry and hurt about the impact of all this on his son and the other firefighters who bore the majority of the cuts, Dennis said, “When you call 911, these firefighters come with integrity. They don’t deserve to be treated this way. They risk their lives in fires. I totally blame Lacher for what happened.”

Former Chief Lacher was contacted regarding a comment but was unavailable at press time.

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.


Discussion | 18 comments

  • EvelynApril 04, 2013 - 11:50 am

    "[Dennis] said when he tried to bring up certain items or have them agendized at board meetings, he was blocked at every turn by Lacher or the district’s counsel, Bill Wright." ********* Is this the same Bill Wright who formerly served as GDPUD legal counsel?

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  • EvelynApril 04, 2013 - 12:17 pm

    Public accountability is a HUGE issue, for government agencies as well as for tax-exempt organizations, the latter increasingly in receipt of large chunks of tax-payer money. Nation-wide, the number of tax-exempt organizations exceeds 2 million. As at 3/14/2013 their reported income was $3,630,914,427,996. El Dorado County alone accounts for 1,130 of the tax exempt organizations (income = $568,286,234), many rendering absolutely sterling community service. The fact that a portion of these tax-exempt organizations are exceedingly shy when it comes to public financial transparency can cast a shadow over the larger body.

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  • francescaduchamp@att.netApril 04, 2013 - 12:30 pm

    Non-profits really need to watch they spend the donations people give them--MATTERS. Donations can not be redirected where a small group has decided--it is public money that was taken. Be careful. I know I have learned a very good lesson this past year about non-profits. sorry to let non profits a reminder--but if a person walks in and asks for your financials--someone better produce them. And one cant say--we cant afford to print them out--or you have to be a member. Because that is not true. You do not have to be a member of a non profit that takes public donations to be shown where the money is--or where it is going. As far as printing out a document--make sure you have a printer...or give up your non profit status. I would help by giving you .20 a copy. Heads up community advisory boards--just saying. There has to be accountability--or BOS I would like 350,00 dollars to help people in my space that havent had raises in that they can paint their houses. I dont want to be on this board--but I will be the public that watches the conduct of their management over my neighbors.

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  • James SmithApril 05, 2013 - 7:06 am

    Yep, that's the same Bill Wright. It's also the same fire district that had a chair throwing session at one of its meetins in the 1990's.

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  • WilsonApril 05, 2013 - 7:42 am

    It's nice to see the democrat have an accurate report regarding this fire dept. The articles in the past have made Lacher out to be a hero...never holding him accountable as the CFO of a multi million dollar (tax money) bussiness. It's unacceptable to see a public agency take advantage of us. I'm curious what would have came to light if the grand jury did not disband. I'm curious if the chiefs raises would have been questioned while the rest of the dept was $1.6 million in the red....maybe it's not too late!

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  • Kyle SmithApril 05, 2013 - 7:59 am

    Great article. Yea that was Bill Wright of GDPUD. The same person who said it was perfectly ok for the district to adopt a deficet budget only to eat his words later...I wonder how rich he's getting trying to cover the backsides of the good'ol boys over the past year - what a cash cow!

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  • cookie65April 05, 2013 - 8:13 am

    Evelyn, do you ever wonder where all of that foreign aide we send out ends up?

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  • SandyApril 05, 2013 - 8:25 am

    I've known Sheryl Calfee for over 15 years. She's the most honest person I know. She should be regailed as a hero for the taxpayers by speaking out for the waste!

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  • Fellow FDApril 05, 2013 - 8:36 am

    Lacher (I refuse to call this scum bag Chief) committed the ultimate crime against his firefighters. He turned his back on his Firefighters for the benefit of himself and his extremely over saturated chief officer staff. Chiefs don't put out fires, chiefs don't transport patients, Firefighters do!! Where I come from (a very large organization) fire chiefs put their firefighters first not themselves! What a tragedy this dirt bag ever became fire chief. How many other fire chiefs in this county are doing the same? And just a question, why do you have 14 different fire chiefs and fire departments in this county?

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  • 1036-FrankApril 05, 2013 - 8:48 am

    This model of corruption and malfeasance seems to have been a standard in the county to be copied at many departments, corruption at the top was the common feature and when exposed the person exposing it usually was attacked and set up then fired or forced to resign. In this case it is fortunate it was exposed, and some result was seen, but at the same time the one who should of been held to account has so far escaped after a well known ploy using the standard sudden "Chief's Disease" injury. usually an attack of the desk, or fell off a chair, tripped over a sandwitch, fell out of a truck, etc. there is generally no witnesses when the desk attacked. This is where a state or federal Grand Jury needs to step in. Wonder if the DA is listening?

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  • Blake JobsonApril 05, 2013 - 11:13 am

    GOD BLESS YOU MICHAEL DENNIS AND SHERYL CALFEE, For having the Guts to Let the Truth be Known. SHAME SHAME SHAME ON YOU LATCHER AND THE REST OF THE WHITE SHIRTS THAT WANTED TO KEEP THEIR SELFISHNESS under the the Expience of our Firemans Saftey and the tax payers Money. This sure opens my eyes of what is Happening to our County. And In Many Other Departments... Not only did you Steal the Moral of our Firefighters, You ALSO Stold from your Community. I WISH WE HAD THE POWER TO FIRE ALL THE GOOD OL BOYS!

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  • kyle smithApril 05, 2013 - 1:13 pm

    Tip of the proverbial iceberg. The District's woe's keep coming...for example what about the $50K gift od taxpayer money going to Asst Chief Rob Cima as a retirement incentive to retire. The JOKE is that he was already eligible to retire! Now he's claiming that the District owes him over $10K in unused vacation and sick leave - just check out the last Agenda for closed session. That place runs like a rusty Timex. It's your money folks!

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  • Dink LaneApril 05, 2013 - 4:59 pm

    Does anyone (It would be nice if Dawn would do this... but it doesn't seem to be her job) know how MANY EDCFD's are on retirement???? I think each and every one of them are getting MORE than $120,000 a year....(You realize these are NON-UNION? They have Packages, nice benefit packages that the working stiffs don't get.)..... So now Hire another at +$200,000..... and in two-years we have another one making $120,000 and full Benefit package...... Do we see a pattern here? Oh I love the Fiscally Conservative Republicans...who give these big paychecks away....and turn around and blame the Unions...

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  • MikeApril 07, 2013 - 10:21 am

    Fellow FD... To answer your questions about why we have so many districts in our county.. To put it simple We do NOT wan to be apart of the County Fire. I live in Rescue FD district. I happily pay taxes and support them at nearly every fundraiser possible. Just so I can say Ive supported them and to do what I can to keep this agency in the black. This department goes after grants to help itself out.. WHAT HAS EL DORADO COUNTY FIRe's Cheif and Board done to help itself??? Nothing... It just keeps spending and covering up corruption

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  • EvelynApril 07, 2013 - 11:27 am

    Part 2 of series: HERE

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  • James SmithApril 07, 2013 - 2:45 pm

    Honestly, I know all the people in the article for a long time and I'm not sure who to believe!

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  • Sandy PApril 07, 2013 - 5:03 pm

    James, this is a very difficult thing to believe. Probably all of us know most of these people. I assure you it's fact. That's what so darn sad. There was a time when these leaders were great firefighters and became great leaders as they worked hard to get there. Our troops have no leaders!! No one they can trust. 94% vote of no confidence and nobody in management stood up to say that this is unacceptable. . Instead they followed the leader who was basically forced out. So James. It's all there. Some is public and probably most is closed. Indeed. Very discouraging

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  • M.D. AndersonApril 10, 2013 - 9:23 am

    This case resembles the recent corruption cases in our county with the Garden Valley chief and the El Dorado Sheriff deputy. I think that Chief Lacher was not alone in this, along with other member(s)of the Fire District, and Fire board member(s) I would suspect. Thank God our D.A. is doing something about this crime, he will have my vote along with many other persons who care about our community. Chief Lacher retired, and I hope if he is convicted, he and the other Fire Dept. and Fire board member(s) have to pay restitution for this theft. Which by the way if Chief Lacher obtains a "stress" retirement, he of course crated, half of his retirement is considered a disability payment, and is therefore not taxed and untouchable by the court/ creditors, sound like good planning by Chief Lacher. Thanks, and God bless you Mountain Democrat and District Attorney Vern Pierson.

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