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Investigators expected to keep quiet on fraud probe

Complaints apparently linked to fire chief’s suicide may remain secret as ‘personnel matter’

Posted: December 4, 2010 10:23 p.m.
Updated: December 5, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

The probe into allegations of fraud and illegal building contracts handled by the Los Angeles County Fire Department — punctuated with the recent suicide of a local fire chief who oversaw local station construction — will not likely wrap up before year’s end, the county’s top claims investigator said.

Wendy Watanabe, Los Angeles County Auditor-Controller who heads the Office of County Investigations, told The Signal on Thursday the probe sparked by complaints received on the county’s Fraud Hotline regarding alleged wrongdoing will not likely be ready before the holidays. She advised calling back in the new year for an update.

“We will have closure on this,” Watanabe said. “And we will be notifying the department under investigation, which in this case is the Fire Department.”

When asked when that closure was likely to happen, she said: “It really depends on the length of the investigation.”
Once the investigation is completed, however, its contents are still unlikely to be made public, she added.

When she has the report in her hands, Watanabe said she will then go before the county Board of Supervisors in closed session and “vocally report” her department’s findings.

“If there is any criminality, we will forward our report to the District Attorney’s Office,” she said. “If there’s any finding of wrongdoing, that would be the first thing we would do.”

For family members of the late Fire Chief Timothy J. Ottman, closure could not come soon enough.

Closure sought
On Oct. 26, in the middle of the afternoon in a public parking lot in Ventura, Ottman shot himself in the head with a .45 caliber pistol.

On the front seat of his white pickup truck, investigators found six envelopes he had addressed to his wife and children, according to details of an investigation conducted by Ventura County Deputy Medical Examiner Craig Stevens.

Despite the individually labelled suicide notes, surviving relatives report they are no closer to understanding why the high-ranking fire official took his own life.

“We’re in the dark on this,” said Ottman’s brother, Los Angeles City Fire Department Chief Thomas Ottman. “Right now, we’re just waiting for the investigation’s official report.”

In the days after the shooting, Timothy Ottman’s widow, Valerie, told The Signal she believes the investigation involving her husband was a factor in his death.

Two of the envelopes left by Ottman were addressed to her simply as “Val.”

In his report, the deputy medical examiner explained how he opened these two envelopes in the course of his investigation.

“One of the notes read in part, ‘I hurt the Dept. I love, people I work with ...,” the report said.

This led Stevens ultimately to contact the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

When he asked a Fire Department official if there was anything going on at work that might have troubled Ottman, Stevens said he was told about the internal investigation, which involved contracts, Ottman and other people.

Watanabe and fire chiefs contacted repeatedly by The Signal all said they are prohibited by policy to discuss details of the case.

“This report is not a public report,” Watanabe said. “It is an internal investigation involving personnel and is therefore confidential.”

Building fire stations
Ottman helped build a significant number of fire stations in the Santa Clarita Valley.

As a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department, he was a civilian chief in charge of the department’s Construction and Maintenance Division, having overseen the construction of existing fire stations.

Most recently, he was involved in securing contracts for six stations that are among a dozen scheduled to be built in the Santa Clarita Valley before 2015, all of which have been, or are still expected to be, approved by the Fire Department’s Construction and Maintenance Division, which Ottman headed.

“Most of these contracts are land agreements,” said Debbie Aguirre, chief of the department’s Planning Division. “When they are ready for construction, eventually they are handed over to the Construction and Maintenance Division.”

Construction bids
Details of the land acquisition cited in each of the half-dozen fire-station contracts hammered out between Los Angeles County officials and developers over the last four years were mailed by Aguirre’s department to The Signal when requested.

However, information about contracting bids submitted to the county by general contractors proposing to actually build the slated fire stations and 11 others between Santa Clarita Valley and Palmdale was not made readily available.

Aguirre, who provided The Signal with copies of contracts for the six fire stations, informed The Signal that she was asked to forward all other requests for documents to the head of the department’s Risk Management Division.

In an e-mail this week, Aguirre wrote: “I have been requested to ask you to forward your request for records to Mr. Michael Kranther, who is the chief of our Risk Management Division ... as a Public Records Act request.”

Blemish-free record
The Fire Department has enjoyed a blemish-free record these past couple of years.

Between July and December 2009, the Office of County Investigations looked into 461 complaints countywide of alleged impropriety, which include allegations of fraud, theft and lying.

Only six of those complaints were directed at personnel inside the county Fire Department, and none of them were substantiated.

Similar probes carried out the first half of that year involved only three Fire Department complaints, and again, none were substantiated.

In fact, anyone looking for any sign of wrongdoing in the Fire Department would have to go back to the end of 2008 to find a single substantiated case in which someone in the department received an illegal number of gifts.

That county employee was given a written warning.

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