San Jose firefighters’ explanations for the events the night they took a bikini-clad woman from the Pink Poodle strip club on a joy ride in a city firetruck are simply not credible.
Worse, the unsuccessful attempts by city officials and the City Council to hide the investigation of the debacle from the public suggest they are more interested in kowtowing to the politically powerful firefighters’ union than accountability to their constituents.
As a result, they have sent a corrosive message to the city workforce and the residents of San Jose that lying is acceptable behavior for some of the most critical public employees in Northern California’s largest city.
A Superior Court judge last month ordered city officials to turn over to this news organization a copy of the internal investigation report they had illegally withheld for months.
The report, released Monday, shows that only the captain in charge of the firetruck team, William Tognozzi, was investigated for the inappropriate use of the critical life-saving vehicle. Tognozzi was subsequently demoted.
The investigation, initiated by the Fire Department Bureau of Administrative Services, focused on Tognozzi’s actions because he was the person in charge who made the decision for the crew and the fire engine to leave the station.
But it’s inexcusable that, once caught in apparent lies, the rest of the crew — Fire Engineer Brian Dragges, Firefighter Matthew Westcott and Fire Engineer Zach Clark — were not disciplined for the incident or, more importantly, their deceitful answers in the Tognozzi probe.
San Jose’s code of ethics requires that all city employees “demonstrate the highest standards of personal integrity, honesty and conduct in all activities in order to inspire public confidence and trust.” City officials’ response to the Pink Poodle fiasco makes a mockery of that mandate.
The debacle originated with a 20-minute excursion from Fire Station 4 that began at 9 p.m. Oct. 5. Tognozzi later claimed to investigators that the purpose of the outing was to transport a photographer to the Pink Poodle, where he worked, so he could retrieve a flash drive with photos of firefighters. He acknowledged the trip was an inappropriate use of the firetruck and a violation of city policies.
The outing became infamous because, once at the strip club, the firefighters gave the bikini-clad woman a ride around the block. She was then caught on video exiting the firetruck. There was no way for the four firefighters to deny it.
The clearest deception stems from what happened next. The firefighters claimed to investigators that they then returned on the firetruck straight back to the station.
However, GPS data from the firetruck revealed the crew first detoured to AJ’s, a bikini bar about 1.5 miles away. AJ’s is located outside the fire engine’s primary service area, meaning the crew left themselves poorly positioned for rapid response in the event of an emergency.
As the city investigator notes, the firefighters recalled with great specificity their discomfort at the bikini-clad woman from the Pink Poodle going for a ride with them. Yet, “it is curious that none of the crew members seem to recall taking this detour” to AJ’s.
She’s right. It’s very curious.
It’s also very curious that the similar language in the firefighters’ original written statements suggests they apparently tried to coordinate their stories.
It curious that, in those statements, they all claimed that the bikini-clad woman brought out the flash drive. But in subsequent interviews with investigators there’s ambiguity as to whether the photographer went into the strip club to retrieve it.
And it’s curious that, in the end, Tognozzi told investigators he never bothered to obtain from the photographer the flash drive that supposedly prompted the excursion in the first place.
What’s clear is that the GPS data flatly contradicts the firefighters’ denial that they detoured to AJ’s, that they left their service area, on the return trip. The question is why nothing was done about the deceit.
Unfortunately, rather than send a message that such untruthfulness will not be tolerated, City Manager Jennifer Maguire continues to defend the city’s illegal attempts to hide the investigation from the public.
Leave us alone, we’ll take care of it, her attitude seems to be. No need for the public to concern itself with these things. Just move along.
She didn’t take care of it. That’s unacceptable. There must be public penalties for lying, for covering up. There must be accountability. And that begins with transparency — something the city of San Jose sorely lacks.
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