By Kim Smith
ODESSA, Texas — Retired Odessa Fire Rescue Chief John Alvarez hit back Wednesday morning at the idea he covered up injuries sustained by OFR cadets last summer and the attorney for an OFR training chief who was punished in connection with the incident blasted the city for trying to ruin his client’s reputation.
Tommy Sheen, an attorney hired to re-investigate last summer’s events, stood before the Odessa City Council Tuesday night and slammed the OFR command staff who originally investigated the incident for their methods and for how they ran the cadet program to begin with.
Sheen told the council he interviewed eight OFR cadets, four captains, Human Resource Director Charles Hurst and retired OFR Chief Joey White in connection with the incident, but said five other cadets and five other key witnesses didn’t show up for scheduled interviews or declined to participate in interviews on the advice of their attorneys.
Those witnesses included City Manager Michael Marrero and City Attorney Natasha Brooks, who were fired last December and Chief John Alvarez, Assistant Chief Saul Ortega and Training Chief Marty Moya, all three of whom have recently retired from OFR.
On Jan. 10, the OA requested emails, texts, witness statements and other documents upon learning the cadets had been injured and the law firm of Davidson Sheen had been hired Jan. 3 to re-investigate the incident. The OA wanted to learn the details of how the injuries came to be and what prompted the investigation at a cost of $195-$375 an hour because Alvarez had said an investigation had already been conducted and disciplinary actions taken.
City officials declined to comment on the matter or provide any of the documents. Instead, they sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s Office to justify their decision.
On March 29, the AG’s Office said the city erred and the documents were released last week.
According to those documents, Alvarez launched an investigation last August after noticing cadets with bandaged hands and he came to learn cadets were injured during a training exercise that may have been created as a retaliatory act.
Moya received a five-day unpaid suspension in connection with the incident and Training Captain Kris Norred received a written reprimand.
Four days of abuse
On Tuesday night, Sheen said the cadets were actually abused over the course of four days and OFR command staff did not involve HR, the city’s safety committee or the city’s legal department until weeks after the event. In addition, Sheen said Alvarez ignored HR’s recommendation to fire Moya and Norred.
Sheen also alleged that during Alvarez’s tenure as chief, cadets received little training, were often left unsupervised and were used merely for menial tasks, such as fire engine washing. He intends to file a second report with recommendations on an improved cadet program.
According to Sheen, after the cadets declined to participate in an Odessa College recruitment event, an upset Norred went to speak with Moya and Moya used “choice words” to tell them they were not measuring up. He then took them outside and forced them to do command pushups and run 1.5 miles.
Sheen explained command pushups force cadets to freeze in position for however long command staff wants them to.
The next afternoon, Sheen said cadets who didn’t run with Norred at UTPB were forced by Moya to “bear crawl” from the base of Central Fire Station’s driveway to the top of the driveway multiple times on a day where the temperature was over 90 degrees — despite the fact at least one cadet’s hands were starting to blister after the first round.
Sheen showed the council several pictures given to him by the cadets showing blisters on their palms and scrapes on their knuckles. He said the cadets were in such pain from the hot pavement, they alternated between the tops and bottoms of their hands while crawling.
After crawling, they were forced to run another 1.5 miles, Sheen said.
Moya allegedly told the cadets “Now it looks like you have been working,” after seeing their hands, Sheen said.
During the next two days, the cadets participated in physical training sessions with Captain Austin Yocham and his crew, Sheen said. Some, but not all of the cadets, felt as though those training sessions were a continuation of the punishment meted out by Norred and Moya, he said.
During this four-day period, Alvarez was out of town as was their regular training Captain Will Moody, Sheen said. Sheen said they had not been told they could lodge complaints with HR and since Moody and Alvarez were unavailable, the cadets never lodged any complaints until Alvarez launched his investigation.
Sheen told the council the cadets were never informed of the results of the investigation or the discipline meted out and they thought the investigation had died.
“I can find no indication from talking to the captains, the chiefs or the cadets that anybody with the city attorney’s office, anybody with HR, anybody with the safety department, anybody outside OFR was let known about what went on over these four days until two or three weeks later,” Sheen said.
Hurst told him he only learned about it when Alvarez “mentioned it in passing” during a joint call between HR and the legal department, Sheen said.
Sheen told the council HR never received a complete set of the recorded statements by those interviewed by Ortega, White and now-retired Assistant Chief Rodd Huber. Moreover, thanks to current policies in place at the city, HR is considered only an advisory board so Alvarez was free to ignore HR’s recommendation Moya and Norred be fired because department heads are basically the “kings of their own castles.”
“My ultimate conclusion with respect to the investigation that was conducted by OFR is it was incomplete and insufficient,” Sheen said. “I dare say I question the veracity of the report.”
The attorney said the incidents may still represent a liability issue for the city.
“They were damaged on the job. They were hurt severely. They weren’t offered any kind of medical assistance whatsoever,” Sheen said.
No changes were made following the incidents, and, in fact, Norred is still the training captain, Sheen said, adding Norred is currently seeking a promotion.
Mayor Javier Joven expressed dismay about the results of Sheen’s investigation and indicated the city has been vindicated for hiring him.
“According to the media, (the first investigation) was a thorough investigation and it was done twice and it was mitigated and it was hammered in a 1,000 word essay supposedly,” Joven said. “What we’re seeing here is that that wasn’t the case.”
Reached Wednesday morning, Alvarez said it is “absolutely not true” that he engaged in a cover-up. The injuries occurred on a Wednesday and Marrero was informed the following Monday after he observed the injuries and launched the investigation, Alvarez said.
In addition, HR and the legal department received updates every other week during regularly scheduled meetings to discuss personnel issues, Alvarez said. The investigation took awhile simply because of the number of interviews that had to be conducted.
“My job as the fire chief was to inform them and I always kept our city manager in the loop,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez opted to suspend Moya and give Norred a written reprimand because he saw the incident as an isolated one, Alvarez said.
“Chief Moya did not intentionally cause harm to the cadets and he took full responsibility,” Alvarez said.
The former chief said he had plans to revamp the cadet training program, but ended up retiring because he felt as though his job was in jeopardy.
He felt he was on borrowed time, in part because he told Council member Mark Matta he did not appreciate Matta engaging in secret meetings with OFR Association members about pay raises.
“I told him, I said, ‘I can’t trust you because you’re going around behind my back with our department members and you’re promising them this and you’re promising them that and I as a fire chief, I have to be transparent. I have to go through the process’ and I went through the process and that backfired on me, like nobody’s business.”
He didn’t feel the need to meet with Sheen, Alvarez said.
“There wasn’t anything that I needed to add to what had already taken place. The incident happened. The incident was investigated. Discipline was issued and I closed the story on that,” Alvarez said.
He and Ortega had been through training on how to conduct internal affairs investigations, Alvarez added.
As far as the cadet program, Alvarez said people don’t understand it’s structured differently than the police academy, which has an instructor each and every day and more structure. OFR cadets participate in physical training and are asked to perform various tasks when they aren’t leaving to attend EMT classes or the fire academy, he said.
“I knew that my time was coming as well. I don’t know if this was what they were going to use against me. I don’t know,” Alvarez said. “What I can tell you is I did 30 years in this department. I’ve made a lot of changes in this department, positive changes. We’re fixing to get an ISO 1 rating and that’s because of my administration, but I don’t get to see the fruits of that, somebody else will.”
ISO ratings are provided to fire departments by the Insurance Services Office and an ISO Rating 1 represents an exemplary fire suppression program.
Alvarez said he did gather all of the cadets together to tell them the investigation was concluded, but he was prohibited from telling them specifically what punishment was imposed because it’s confidential.
The former chief also said hours and hours of interview recordings were uploaded into OFR’s internal affairs database and while he’s not sure if they were shared with HR, the department only had to ask for them.
“My big whole thing, my big message to you is, absolutely not. It was not a cover up. It couldn’t have been. There’s no way,” Alvarez said.
Moya’s attorney, Bobby Bland, bemoaned the fact his client’s name is being “dragged through the mud” by the city.
Up until last August, Moya had never been disciplined by the city during the course of his “long and distinguished” career with them, Bland said.
“He admitted to making a mistake, but he did not haze anybody and the allegations that he hazed is reprehensible, quite frankly,” Bland said.
His client stopped the training exercise when he saw they’d been injured, Bland said.
“He did feel bad about the language he used and he acknowledged that at the time, and he was punished with a suspension, which was pretty extreme at the time,” Bland said. “This was all taken care of last year. There was no reason for them to drag his name through the mud again, at the rate of $40,000 when they had all this information already.”
Bland was also upset at Sheen’s attempt to castigate OFR because the cadets didn’t report the incident.
City officials recently acknowledged the city’s personnel and policy handbook is a “mess” and yet it’s the human resource department that is responsible for writing and updating the handbook, not OFR, Bland said.
“To sit there and throw the fire department under the bus the way they did is unacceptable. It’s interesting. HR and all these other agencies that are the yes people of the city council are saying ‘We didn’t have anything to do with anything and we don’t have any control over that. It was those people’ and then they hired some outside counsel to make their case for them. This report is skewed to make sure that the people that hired him look good,” Bland said of Sheen’s report.
Bland noted that according to an email chain obtained by the Odessa American as a result of the AG’s March 29 opinion, Hurst was asked by Alvarez if he concurred with Moya and Norred’s punishment on Sept. 27 and Hurst replied, “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“According to this report, HR said one thing at the time and now they say something else and it’s not because new evidence came to light. It’s because the city for whatever reason, through their employees or through the council decided to conduct a witch hunt on people to justify their previous quite questionable or improper activities,” Bland said, explaining he was referring to the firings of Marrero and Brooks.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Joven expressed anger that the city had failed its employees and department heads have been allowed to create silos and conduct their own investigations.
“There was a failed administration with OFR, they failed their employees, those they vowed they were going to protect. They had an opportunity to come and tell their side, they chose not to,” Joven said. “We created and hired an independent firm to be able to look into it because we knew it hadn’t been investigated thoroughly….and we knew the city hadn’t been informed and we needed to know why.”
There’s been a “systematic break” within the city that was created over “decades and decades and decades,” Joven said.
Although Joven has repeatedly declined to offer an explanation for the firings of Brooks and Marrero, he did criticize them both following the meeting.
Joven noted the city is in the process of updating its policies and procedures handbook with the help of the Mirarchi Management Group and he’d like to hear from them as to what changes need to be made, Joven said.
“Mr. Charles Hurst is ex- Navy, he was an officer. He’s trained. He’s educated. He came in here two years ago with a plan and he was handcuffed by the former city manager. He was told to stand down and he was relegated to an advisory group,” Joven said.
As for Brooks, Joven noted the council was asked Tuesday night to approve a handful of HR policies that were written as far back as 2019.
“They were proposed and they were never brought to council to be voted on. Which sounds about right. The former city attorney and her staff, it was not caught. This is not the only incident, there are several things like this. And so it does not surprise me. And so this is why you saw my reaction. This had become a norm and this is the cleanup process that we are doing,” Joven said.
In other action, the city council voted unanimously to give Interim City Attorney Dan Jones Brooks’ job.
OFR Interim Chief Jason Cotton said changes are already being made to the cadet program, including dropping the class sizes to 10 from 30.
“There’s going to be more structure with the cadet program, more structure and more expectations and those expectations will be clear and understood,” from the top down, Cotton said.
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