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 [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.