A black firefighter who stood to collect nearly $3 million over a prank involving dog food in his spaghetti is at the center of a political and racial furor in Los Angeles, where city leaders failed on Wednesday to put the case to rest.
After two days of grappling with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's veto of a $2.7 million settlement in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by 19-year fire department veteran Tennie Pierce, the City Council voted to send the case back to the drawing board.
"Before we render a decision to settle in the amount of $2.7 million, lets look at all the evidence," Villaraigosa said at a news conference. "Lets ensure that all the facts are on the table."
At issue is whether Pierce was the victim of a harmless firehouse joke or vicious racism when his comrades slipped dog food into his spaghetti two years ago.
Money raises case's profile
The 2005 lawsuit attracted little notice in Los Angeles until earlier this month, when the council took the advice of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and voted to pay Pierce the $2.7 million without going to trial.
The settlement, one of the largest in city history for a fire department discrimination claim, also would allow Pierce, 51, to retire after one more year of service, when he is entitled to a pension roughly equal to half of his annual salary for the rest of his life.
Critics were infuriated by the huge payout and, egged on by popular KFI-AM talk-radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, deluged Delgadillo and the council with cans of dog food in protest.
About those pictures
The settlement was vetoed by Villaraigosa after Kobylt and Chiampou obtained pictures of Pierce himself engaging in a series of fire station pranks -- in one instance apparently helping shave the genital area of a firefighter who had been bound to a gurney.
Pierce, who made a tearful plea before the City Council on Tuesday, admitted engaging in pranks but said they were done out of "love" -- whereas he saw his dog food dinner as racist.
"Whatever anyone says about me, I've always tried to do what's right," Pierce told the council.
Three black members of the City Council led a move to override Villaraigosa's veto, but after failing to muster enough votes were forced to send the case back to Delgadillo. Delgadillo must either reach a new settlement with Pierce's attorneys or take the case to trial.