An El Segundo Fire Department captain is suing the city, alleging he was demoted for protesting the misuse of funds reserved through a consent decree for buying safety equipment.
Capt. James Tulette’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit also names Fire Chief Chris Donovan as a defendant. The 53-year-old plaintiff seeks unspecified damages in the suit filed Tuesday, alleging retaliation and age discrimination.
A representative for the city did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Tulette was hired by the ESFD in 1991 and in 2010 was promoted to the department’s Urban Search and Rescue Program, in which he is a state certified specialist, according to his court papers, which state that assignment to USAR is one of the most prestigious assignments within the firefighting community.
In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency and Chevron entered into a consent decree approved by a federal judge arising from a fire that occurred at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond in 2012, the suit states. The decree made money available to various California agencies for the purchase of new safety equipment, including El Segundo and the ESFD, according to the complaint.
The money was reserved for safety equipment, including helmet shields, a point Donovan himself made to the department members, according to his court papers. However, in January, Donovan and a battalion chief “embarked on a scheme … to utilize consent decree funds for the purchase of items outside the purview of the consent decree,” the suit alleges.
The battalion chief ordered that all helmet shields be removed from ESFD helmets, packaged and returned to the vendor, and Donovan and the battalion chief bought new helmet shields on behalf of the department, the suit states.
But in February, the vendor, rather than sending new helmet shields, returned the old ones to the ESFD as if they were new and gave ESFD a credit for the monies as if it had paid for new helmet shields, the suit alleges.
“The purpose of the credit was to enable ESFD to utilize … monies for matters outside the purview of the consent decree,” the suit alleges.
Tulette says he questioned the battalion chief about the alleged transaction, advising that it was in violation of the consent decree. The battalion chief told the plaintiff he should “mind his own business,” the suit alleges.
Tulette says he complained to the city and Human Resources Director David Serrano about the alleged transaction, saying he believed there had been a violation of the consent decree and federal and Califonia law.
In June, in alleged retaliation for his complaints and because of his age, Donovan, the battalion chief and other management members demoted Tulette from USAR program coordinator to USAR program adviser, the suit states. When Tulette asked why he was given the downgrade, the battalion chief told him he was “fortunate to have remained in the USAR program,” according to the plaintiff.
The battalion chief also asked Tulette why he raised the helmet issue and suggested that his complaints might “ruin her career,” the suit alleges.