Two former Alhambra Fire Department employees who have filed wrongful termination lawsuits against the city are also alleging that they experienced anti-Asian bias in the agency, LA Weekly reports. The news weekly's cover story, "Alhambra Arson Foul Play?" is a lengthy look into the 2007 deadly Valley Boulevard fire and ensuing lawsuits, mainly from the perspective of former fire protection specialist Ken Toh.
"He says he had no choice but to sue the City of Alhambra in federal court for violating his civil rights," the Weekly reports. "Though baffled for a long time, Toh came to believe he was targeted by fire officials whose upper ranks included no Chinese-Americans — in a Los Angeles suburb that is 50 percent Asian."
Toh, who was with the department for 15 years, was terminated following questioning whether the blaze had been arson. As one of only two Asian employees in the Fire Department at the time, according to the Weekly, he says "he felt ostracized" and "never felt at ease among the mostly white and Hispanic firefighters, and says he was often the butt of their jokes." The fire killed a Taiwanese man and resulted in the loss of Chinese businesses, and he says he felt his race was the reason his questions about the investigation were not taken seriously and ultimately turned against him.
"If I was Caucasian," Toh, who was the only employee at the time who spoke Mandarin or Cantonese, told the Weekly, "this never would have happened. After I spoke up, the fire department thought I would not be loyal to the fire department anymore and would only be loyal to the Chinese community."
The Weekly story says the Assistant Fire Chief at the time, John Kabala, who is now retired, declined to comment and has no further response from Alhambra or the Fire Department about allegations of bias.
There are currently three Asian Americans out of a total 65 employees of the fire department. No one on staff speaks Mandarin or Cantonese, according to the city. Alhambra City Manager Julio Fuentes told the Alhambra Source that hiring is based on qualifications, not race. "We are looking for the best qualified people and if we are doing the recruiting correctly, we end up recruiting diverse people," he said. "We have all kinds of folks working here, not that we do this on purpose. We just hired an Asian police chief, I didn’t do this on purpose — we just do a good job at doing recruiting."
Mike Hatzbanian — a former code enforcement officer — is separately suing the city of Alhambra for wrongful termination. Like Toh he claims the department ignored significant evidence that the fire was not electrical, as officials determined, but actually arson. Hatzbanian told the Weekly he also observed an anti-Asian culture in the agency under Kabala.
"Kabala made fun of the way Ken talks," Hatzbanian told the Weekly, "and he called all Asians 'Chinamen.' He never called them 'Asian.' He said the Chinese must be crooked because they have so much money and [he] acted jealous that they were new to this country and had more than he did."
The day of the fire Kabala told journalists the cause was an electrical blaze from a bakery and arson was ruled out. Not until the next day was the dead body of 61-year-old Charlie Lee discovered in a frame shop. Toh then found a surveillance video of Lee moving items and began to wonder whether the fire been intentional.
The Weekly reports that, "Toh soon learned, by talking with fellow non–English speakers who knew Lee, that Lee may have been behind on his rent and possibly in debt. He began following a rumor that Lee and his wife were having problems. He knew that among Chinese businessmen, it was not unheard of to burn their shop down — as a way to save face if the business is failing."
His job description did not include conducting investigations, however, and his questions were not welcome. The L.A. District Attorney's office charged him with interfering with the investigation. He was acquitted of all charges in 2009.
The Weekly story also alleges that the lack of investigation into the 2007 fire is part of a larger pattern of "supressing or destroying evidence in controversial fires." The only other fire referenced was a deadly fire on Olive Street in 2001, where Toh and Hatzbanian in their suits allege an investigation was suppressed. The Pasadena Star-News also reported on this on Wednesday as well, in a story titled "Employee says Alhambra officials covered up fatal fire." In both stories deposition from then code enforcement division manager Vince Bisognio is cited in which he says the city destroyed documents related so the building department did not receive blame for an illegal conversion.
The city denies the charges. Richard Terzian, who is representing Alhambra in this case, told the Pasadena Star-News that the "the Olive fire and the Valley fire were unrelated and he couldn't understand why Bisognio brought it up during the deposition because he had never brought it up before."