$2.5M settlement approved for white LAFD captains who alleged reverse discrimination

The Los Angeles City Council today approved a $2.5 million payout for two white fire captains who complained of excessive punishment following a 2004 prank in which a black firefighter was fed dog food-laced spaghetti.

John Tohill and Christopher Burton were supervisors at Fire Station 5 in Westchester when firefighter Jorge Arevalo mixed dog food into fellow firefighter Tennie Pierce's spaghetti, without the latter's knowledge.

Tohill and Burton were suspended without pay for 24 and 30 days, respectively, while Arevalo got a six-day suspension. Both supervisors were also involuntarily transferred to other firehouses.

Both captains claimed that, because they were white, they were punished more harshly than the Latino perpetrator of the prank.

In March 2008, a Los Angeles jury awarded Tohill $1.052 million and Burton, $592,000. The payout approved today is larger, because of interest and attorneys' fees, according to a city budget analyst. City documents do not specify the division of the $2.5 million between the two captains.

Pierce received a $1.43 million settlement from the city in September 2007.

The City Council initially approved a $2.7 million settlement, but Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed it after seeing photos of Pierce participating in pranks himself.

Councilman Greig Smith rued the loss of the money, but added, "I think the good thing that came out of it is we have now allocated, in the budget for this year, the establishment of a professional standards bureau within the Fire Department.''

"We're going to fix the problem so in the future, these things are caught before they turn into multimillion-dollar lawsuits,'' Smith said. "I think that's the upshot of this.''

Burton and Tohill both still work in the Fire Department.