Paul Vandeveld though he was doing the right thing in 2006 when he agreed to provide information to then-City Attorney Michael Aguirre about the commonplace practice in the department called “pension spiking.” The practice involves promoting department employees to higher paid positions immediately before they retire, in order to get substantially higher pension benefits from the city’s pension plan.
Shortly thereafter, Vandeveld, 44, tried to help a fire captain that was being harassed by fellow firefighters, because many in the department thought he had leaked information to the press about a battalion chief who had been arrested for drunken driving.
The firefighter sent out an email defending the battalion chief using a phony email address containing the name of a prominent union leader, so that it would be read by recipients. A few hours later, feeling remorseful, he sent an email saying that it was he who had sent out the earlier email.
A subsequent investigation found that he was guilty of conduct unbecoming of a firefighter, and was briefly suspended. Afterwards, he was repeatedly passed over for promotions to captain, even though every job review ranked his job performance as “satisfactory” or “outstanding”, and he was “next in line” for promotion.
Vandeveld’s attorney said that the fire department used the benign email as an excuse to punish him for cooperating with the city attorney in the pension spiking investigation.
“This firefighter was cooperative with and supportive of the efforts of the City Attorney’s Office to eradicate wrongdoing in the pension system,” Aguirre said. “He was trying to help to do the right thing. He was ill-advised, though, to use someone else’s name … and that was wrong.
The 12 member jury reached a unanimous decision that he should be paid the difference between what he received as a fire engineer, and what he would have received as a caption. The jury also awarded him $60,000 in punitive damages and lost wages from the time of his suspension.