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Former Alhambra Fire Department employees suing city allege anti-Asian bias

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."

The Alhambra Source encourages comment on our stories. However, we do not vet comments for accuracy or endorse links to posts in the comment section. The thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the author of the comment.

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7 thoughts on “Former Alhambra Fire Department employees suing city allege anti-Asian bias”

  1. Tommy –

    You might want to rethink your comments about “always doing the right thing” as a former member of this department murdered a Hispanic man in La Mirada back in the 90’s. He lost his job but may now have been rehired since he pled “self-defense” although he had a shotgun while the victim had no weapon. The “boys in blue” from Alhambra came to his aid regardless of the circumstances AND the fact that he was/is a known bigot. So perhaps there IS something about Alhambra that attracts racists.

  2. Dan, it's more like you are the one with the axe to grind about government in general. Not all government is corrupt. You stated “we can ignore your comment because of its tone, seemingly personal attacks against Toh…” So, it is OK for Toh and his supporters to do the exact same thing? You can dish it out, but you can't take any rebuttals? And contrary to your belief, my opinion does not support Toh's allegations about racism and a hostile work environment within the fire department. I'm just tired of seeing this one-sided story. Sounds like you are taking my opinion personal. You too, do not see the bottom line. Yes, I do know a lot and believe me, I will be giving my two-cents worth when the time comes. I can tell you choose not to hear both sides of the spectrum and God forbid you get on a Jury, because it is obvious you do not have an open and fair mind. 

    1. Tricky:

      My primary concern as a resident of Alhambra is that you appear to be jeopardizing a legal case against the city. If I were the city attorney (I'm not) and you work for the city I would tell you to stop commenting publicly (online or in person) regarding Toh's case against the city. You are a liability to the city's position. Your comments also reflect poorly on the city. In addition, I would tell you to speak with your own private attorney because the city attorney represents the city and not its employees. Commenting on a pending lawsuit likely is against city policy and will get you fired, especially if the city loses.

      Let Toh and his supporters say all they want. The only real vindication the fire department will get is through winning the lawsuit. Just like sports, the only thing that matters at the end of the day is the scoreboard at the end of the game.

      Unlike you, I have no personal stake in either the litigation at hand nor with the fire department. I do not know Toh, Kabala, nor anyone else involved. I have not taken up a personal opinion about the validity of the claim other to say that if true based on the facts in the various articles then Toh has a case against the city.

      What I do not tolerate, and the reason I responded to your comment, is: (1) generalized attacks upon groups of people (e.g. race, ethnicity, and profession); (2) personal attacks while cloaked in anonymity (come out into the sunlight, first); and (3) conflict of interest.

      As I've commented many times on the Alhambra Source, the failure of immigrant businesses to speak English, put up signs in English, or hire English speaking staff is not inherently racist. It does say that those business owners likely do not speak English, do not prioritize or cater to English-speaking customers, and do not prioritize or cannot afford English speaking staff. It may be foolish in business but it does not mean they are racist. Let the marketplace decide. If they fail because they do not diversify their customer base, so be it.

      Lastly, some of your personal attacks against Toh are refuted by the LA Weekly article. First, Toh is presumed innocent because he was acquitted by a jury with regard to whether he interfered with the investigation. Second, during his testimony at trial, Tom Fee pretty much said Alhambra Fire Department screwed up the investigation and jumped the gun on identifying a cause of the fire. Fee is a former Pomona fire chief and past president of both the California Conference of Arson Investigators and the International Association of Arson Investigators. Personally, I will believe Fee over an anonymous person with no known credentials in either fire fighting or arson investigation. That said, I have not read the transcript of his testimony but I trust that the LA Weekly reporter accurately reported what he said.

  3. Shame on you journalists and scum bag lawyers. You didn’t do all of your homework. I found a number of errors or “untruths” in your article to put it politely. First, starting with the title of your article “…Toh was tried as a criminal, after finding a body…”  He did NOT FIND the body.

    Also stated in your article, “As only one of two Asians in the fire department…” is also incorrect. Someone failed to mention the “Asian” secretary assigned to the Fire Prevention Division, in which Toh worked. That’s discrimination against her. Why didn’t she count? Is it because Chinese men traditionally see women as inferior? Toh’s theory is that “Kabala went after him because he’s Chinese.” That is completely made up.

    Chinese people can be just as “racist” as anyone else. For example, how can they open a business in the United States and not speak English? So when an English speaking patron enters their store, the owner can’t or won’t speak English; it is so obvious they only want to cater to the Chinese. Another example is when I drive by Chinese businesses, a lot of their signage is in Chinese. I can’t read it, so why would I patronize them? I have “Caucasian” friends who have gone to a Chinese restaurant and they were ignored by the restaurant staff. It was obvious the restaurant staff did not want to wait on the “Caucasians,” when no one came to their table to take their orders, so they left the restaurant.

    And Toh’s comment, “They called me ‘broken toe’ because of my last name,…I was very offended and there was nothing he could do.” The nickname ‘broken toe’ came about when Toh had broken his foot and was in a cast. Toh was asked specifically, if the term offended him and he laughed and said no. If it bothered him, why didn’t he say so when he was asked? And now he throws this out there as racial discrimination?

    It’s absurd for Toh to say, “If I were Caucasian, this would have never happened.” I can’t believe he threw the “race-card” out there. This one-sided version is not what the case against Toh was about. Yes, he was trying to help, but he went over and beyond. This is what he refuses to understand.

    It started when Toh was asked to translate and translate only. He was a plan-checker and inspector. No where in his job specs did it say “Arson Investigator.”

    If you or I were asked to translate, we would do it to the best of our ability. But, for me, there is no way I would take it upon myself to conduct my own investigation, “looking” for evidence. Number one, I don’t have the education or the experience to be an arson investigator and neither does Toh.

    It appears to me Toh overstepped his authority; that is what this is all about. Toh got his ego slapped around, because he didn’t know when to back down, and then cries racism? There was an obvious conflict of interest, because Toh’s friend, Peter Fong, had a lot at risk. Your article made it sound like Toh was all for the “victim.” But that is not the whole truth. His only goal was to exonerate his friend from great civil liability, even if it meant going up against fire department management. For Toh to go out on a limb and tell fire department “professionals” their investigation is a cover up is a little too much involvement for someone with absolutely zero experience in investigations. It appears to me the only cover up was generated by Peter Fong.

    The City filed the suit against Toh for interfering in a criminal investigation. Unfortunately, the Jury did not see the bottom line; another jury injustice.

    Mandel’s comment, “The biggest case of Kabala’s career, he’s on TV making a hasty announcement…” Had Mandel done his homework, this was not Kabala’s biggest case of his career by any means. Kabala had investigated bigger, high-profile cases before this one. But on the other hand, maybe he knew that to manipulate the Jury. People don’t understand that lawyers can dramatize their theory of events. It’s one person’s opinion or interpretation.

    It is interesting to note, during this trial, Toh never mentioned any racism, until later, when he filed this new lawsuit that his Civil Rights were violated. In your article, Toh says “…had he been a complainer.” Well, most people speak up when they feel like they are being picked on. Especially, when there is an accusation of racism. The first thing you do is report it and make sure it is documented; he never did this. But now he paints his former boss as a racist. This is so far from the truth. Kabala is the last person I would call a racist. He has in-laws that are Asian, he has friends of all ethnicities and he treats them all with the respect they deserve.

    Through all of this, it is Kabala’s professional reputation and character that has been ripped apart and when he tries to defend himself, Toh implies there’s a cover up. This is just WRONG.

    No one was out to destroy Toh’s career, as Toh’s friend stated. No one ever said anything against Toh’s ability to do the job he was hired to do; plan checks and safety inspections. But yet he claims he can’t get a job. You talk about Toh’s reputation and how he has suffered, but yet he’s a hero in the Chinese community? Why is it just in the “Chinese community he’s a hero?” If he was doing the “right thing” wouldn’t everyone in the community be behind him? Perhaps the majority does not believe his intentions or his new claims of racism. Sadly, the Chinese community is misinformed.

    Also not reported and an important fact, Kabala was not the only one who came to the conclusion that the fire was electrical in nature and started in the Bakery. There were several other investigative agencies involved, and they too came to the same conclusion and mirrored Kabala’s findings. So are they all wrong?

    1. So-called Tricky: Come out into the sunlight. Stop hiding in the shadows of anonymity like a cockroach. I think we can ignore your comment because of its tone, seemingly personal attacks against Toh, generalized attacks against attorneys and journalists, and the amount of information that demonstrates you have a personal interest in the case and perhaps axe to grind.

      Moreover, you seem to know a lot about the internal workings of the fire department as well as what happened. Do you realize your comments support Toh's allegations about racism and a hostile work environment within the fire department? If I were Toh's attorney (I'm not) I would file a subpoena for your IP address from the Alhambra Source and subsequent subpoenas for personal information of the person who used that computer from any ISP or host provider.

  4. Tommy, I think it is time for you to have some empathy and be more accepting of others. After all, from past comments you made, you chose to move into this community and live among its large immigrant population.

    First, you need to not generalize when telling people to learn English. People who immigrate here come at all ages, with varying skills and abilities to acquire new languages, and with different levels of English capabilities. Older adults generally have a more difficult time learning new languages and remain more comfortable speaking their native tongue. On the other hand, children will learn new languages fairly quickly. In addition, some people can pick up new languages quickly while others take years of study to gain elementary skills in that new language. Personally, I fall in the latter category and have a horribly difficult time learning new languages. Moreover, immigrants come to our community with varying levels of education level, literacy, and English skills. Each has a role in how quickly that person can pick up English. Not only that, but folks need time to take classes and study English to learn, which is more difficult for some immigrants than others. I'm not making excuses for people, I'm just saying that telling folks to “learn English” in the way you do is too simplistic and ignorant.

    Learning English has been a primary xenophobic complaint for more than a century when Germans and Eastern Europeans started coming to the US in large numbers. And like the Asians do today, those earlier groups moved to semi-isolated enclaves that allowed life to be conducted in the old language. And like those earlier groups, the next generations of Alhambra's Asians will learn English and assimilate into our larger American culture.

    Second, I agree that we should hire the most qualified person but at no time should the hiring decision be tainted by race or ethnicity. That said, the fire and police departments should have staff members including investigators who are trained and conversant in the common Asian languages. Our public safety agencies must be able to communicate with our community members. Our safety requires it.

    I would also like to note that based on information provided in this and other articles, Toh appears to have a valid complaint and has a chance of winning in court. The use of “Chinaman” from the supervisor suggests a hostile work environment. Combined with the low number of Asians on staff, it also suggests hiring (and firing) decisions might have been tainted by that supervisor's dislike of Asians. Toh's case would be strengthened if he can find other qualified Asian applicants who were turned away in favor of non-Asians.

  5. What a bunch-a-crap!!  I don't care what race works at the fire dept. as long as our city is safe… from my understanding, Toh was terminated for overstepping his job and tampering with evidence and acting outside the fire dept.  And if the people don't know english, if the live here, time for them to learn!!

    I don't buy Toh's story at all… these guys are heros and always doing the right thing… and just because someone does speak Mandarin or Cantonese does NOT mean our city is any safer!!  My Brother is a firefighter in New York and this crap about afirminative action does not fly when our safety is the issue… he needs to quit whining and move on… he didn't do his job according to the Fire Dept's policies and guidelines and now is crying racism!!

    Tommy Wilson-O'Brien