The civil case brought out the who’s who of San Bernardino County administrators. Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux, disgraced former Human Resources Director Andrew Lamberto, former fire union boss Bret Henry, and San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig were all subpoenaed to testify in Corley v. County of San Bernardino. In the end, the jurors said that Hartwig, Devereaux, and Lamberto lacked credibility and seemed unimpressed and unmoved with the explanations offered by the other county witnesses.
After less than a day of deliberations, eleven jurors voted in favor of awarding $704,000 to George Corley, a former battalion chief with the county, $550,000 of which was for damages. Jurors hugged Corley and thanked him for his service.
The history behind the lawsuit is long. It goes back to Devereaux’s early days when he, with the help of then Fire Local 935 President Bret Henry, began to dismantle County Fire’s executive team in an effort to promote their friends into leadership positions.
Seeing the writing on the wall, beloved Fire Chief Pat Dennen left within a few months of Devereaux’s arrival. He was replaced by his second in command, Dan Wurl, who left less than a year later. Both had been targeted by union boss Bret Henry for more than a year.
Dan Odom took on the position next as an interim chief. He was replaced by current Chief Mark Hartwig. The two had worked closely together in San Bernardino Count Professional Firefighters Association Local 935, the union headed by Bret Henry. Henry had worked closely with Devereaux to undermine Dennen and Wurl in hopes of promoting his own career and putting a Henry-friendly chief in place.
Hartwig came from the west end, something that seems to give any candidate a substantial edge with Devereaux, who prior to becoming county CEO served as city manager in Fontana and then Ontario. Hartwig’s presence was felt immediately.
Within the first few days of becoming the new fire chief, Hartwig changed the qualification to become a division chief by doing away the with the requirement that the applicant have two years of battalion chief experience, a change made without Board of Supervisors approval. Hartwig then reassigned three of the five division chiefs to less-than-desirable assignments to encourage their retirements.
According to Sandra Noel, attorney for George Corley, “This case got a lot of attention when it was first filed because Devereaux had asked Bret Henry for the names of chief officers they were going to get rid of. It became known throughout the department as the hit list.
“The county denied it but Devereux admitted in trial that he got a list from Henry but it was just positions they were going to eliminate to save money. Henry testified that Devereaux asked for the list of names. No division chief positions were ever eliminated, only the oldest chief officer (Corley) who was earning top step at the time and replaced by a younger, unqualified and cheaper employee,” continued Noel.
“Typical Devereaux. Andrew Lamberto testified that Devereaux never told him that there would be a reduction in force . . . obviously because this wasn’t about eliminating positions, but older workers to save money,” concluded Noel. Lamberto and Devereaux were notorious for eliminating older workers in favor of younger workers who are more easily controlled.
George Corley, the plaintiff in this case, refused to retire because he still had a child in school. During trial it was discovered that Hartwig told Henry he was frustrated that Corley refused to retire and said, “Does he expect me to support his daughter the rest of his life.” Hartwig terminated Corley.
Corley is a nationally honored recipient of the Honor Award for Heroism and Emergency Response from Congress for saving Lake Arrowhead, along with three other individuals, from the old fire. He has numerous awards for his leadership, including an award in 2011 from the American Red Cross after Hartwig became fire chief.
Corley was a Type I Incident Commander, one of only a handful of individuals throughout the nation who can command the most serious, most complex, and largest of natural disasters. When Hartwig terminated him, he claimed he did so because Corley had no leadership qualities.
The case went to mediation twice. The county offered $15,000 the first time and $75,000 the second time. The county also filed a motion for summary judgment and lost. It is unusual for the county to move forward to trial, but county attorneys gambled and the gamble cost the county taxpayers $704,000.
The trial lasted six weeks. After the fifth week, Noel suffered a health issue, and her co-counsel, Chris Carrillo, had to finish and the trial and present the closing argument. It was his first trial. According to Noel, “He knocked it out of the park. He is now known as the Mariano Rivera of law.”