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DOG FOOD DEAL TRUMPS GROPING GRIPES.

Byline: MARIEL GARZA

QUICK legal quiz: Which is worse, to engage in ambiguous activity that might be construed as racist or to engage in unambiguous sexual harassment?

The answer is the former -- at least that's what one might discern from the recent lawsuit settlements made by the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office and City Council.

Last week, everyone was talking about the $2.7 million settlement with Tennie Pierce, a 19-year vet of the L.A. Fire Department who sued over a now-infamous dog-food incident. The mayor vetoed the council's approval of the settlement, which was recommended by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who was concerned a trial would net the plaintiff an even bigger payday.

But no one is talking about the two lawsuits settled just weeks before, alleging sexual harassment, one involving particularly vicious psychological abuse of a rape victim.

The two suits, both filed by longtime Fire Department employees, were settled for just a few hundred thousand dollars apiece. And these two incidents appear to signal more troubling problems in the Fire Department than the Pierce case.

To recap: Pierce's complaint stems from a prank that started when he called himself ``the Big Dog'' during a volleyball game. Later, as a joke, other firefighters gave Pierce a plate of spaghetti mixed with dog food, and laughed when he ate it.

The racial angle of the story comes in because the pranksters were white and the pranksteree was black. Pierce alleged that the dog-food harassment continued with cans left in his car and other firefighters barking at him.

I don't know if Pierce's experience was truly a case of racist behavior or just a mean-spirited practical joke that got out of hand. I wasn't there, but pranks and other offensive hazing incidents seem to have occurred with regularity at Pierce's station, according to recently surfaced photos of other Firefighters Gone Wild moments. But I do know that of the claims made by all three, Pierce's was the least disturbing to read about.

By contrast, in one recently settled sexual-harassment lawsuit, a male firefighter described a 16-month nightmare. The plaintiff alleged that his boss, upon learning that this firefighter had been raped as a child, proceeded to harass him a way that's unacceptable to relate in a newspaper. (The plaintiff's name is in court records; I chose not to print it because the childhood rape clearly has caused him enough harm.) But the cruelty included degrading taunts, physical manhandling and showing him porn on a work computer, all over the course of more than a year. The firefighter also says his attempts to report the incident were met with retaliation, including a psychological evaluation that declared him unfit to work.

It's hard to know what goes one between two people, but the city apparently thought the complaints were strong enough to award the man $325,000. Though the settlement in no way assigns guilt, it does indicate that the city's attorneys recognized that the claims were serious enough to sway a jury to award much, much more.

Ditto with Ruthie Bernal, a married Fire Department employee who claims that her supervisor sexually harassed her for months, groped her and confessed his love in inappropriate ways. She further claimed the Fire Department failed to investigate her complaints before the captain retired. In September, the City Council agreed to settle Bernal's case for $320,000.

Again, it's hard to know what actually happened between the two, but the department's lack of response seems troublesome, and it evidently did to the council members as well.

What all three of these cases show is that the Fire Department could use a big overhaul, not just begrudging reforms. And that's not news. A City Controller's Office audit earlier this year concluded that there is ``systemic harassment'' against women and minorities in the Fire Department.

The disparity between the settlements aside, the payoffs are costing the city too much. And not just in terms of cash. The men and women of the LAFD put their lives on the line as part of their jobs, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.

Meanwhile, I now have a fun fact to file away: Eating dog food is worth millions more than being groped, insulted or molested. Good to know.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 26, 2006
Words:717
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