4 recruits back at Las Vegas fire academy after cheating scandal

A year after their class was disbanded because of suspicions of cheating, four of the 14 would-be Las Vegas firefighters won a second chance. They were accepted again and are in a 24-week training academy scheduled to graduate in May.

Jonathan Christensen, Brady Kiesel, Bryson Prisbey and Cynthia Reveles observed the cheating and didn’t report it, according to the Nevada fire marshal’s investigation. Now they’re in the academy for a second time.

The failure of the entire academy to be certified by the fire marshal last year cost taxpayers nearly $719,000.

“We have findings that seven of the 14 did not participate in cheating. They had failed to report it but there’s no evidence they cheated,” State Fire Marshal Peter Mulvihill said Thursday.

His office caught the cheating a year ago, discovering a suspicious pattern of similar answers on a written exam.

Fire training officer Michael Jackson, the proctor who supervised the test Jan. 11, 2013, is no longer with the city, where his annual base pay was $98,417 and nearly $174,000 with other pay and benefits. “Our investigation determined the test proctor did not actually conduct the practical examination portion of the exam,” Mulvihill wrote Las Vegas Fire Chief Willie McDonald on Sept. 5. Jackson had already left the city months earlier.

Mulvihill provided the consent agreement that laid out the actions his office took related to the 14. “It requires that they take a professional ethics, college level course, and complete it before applying for state certification. There was a waiting period for one year for some of them before they can reapply and three months for others,” he said.

The group of 14 fell into three categories with three different levels of discipline.

All 14 were denied certification for Hazardous Materials Awareness and Operations, the exam they never took. All 14 were required to take a college course in professional ethics if they decided to reapply.

The four firefighter trainees — Christensen, Kiesel, Prisbey and Reveles — were hired in January to join the current academy, the first full academy since a year ago. They were among those who did not cheat but did not report the cheating, along with Alexander Cortez-Debonar, Trevor Madrid and David Nettles.

Madrid and Nettles later cooperated with investigators and are not required to wait to reapply, nor did they sign the consent decree or reserve the right to appeal administratively.

The other five, the four trainees and Cortez-Debonar, were told they could reapply after a three-month waiting period following the September letter and subsequent consent decree. The four applicants are in this group.

The seven recruits found to have cheated during the written test must wait a year from last September to reapply. They are Jarod Barton, Sadie Helm, Cal Henrie Jr., Kyle Hurley, Elliott Kleven, Michael McFate and Brian White. At the time Henrie’s father and Hurley’s brother were fire captains and White’s uncle was a firefighter. Kleven is the son of a retired assistant fire chief.

None of the four firefighter trainees now in the program have family connections to the city.

As part of the city’s investigation, City Manager Betsy Fretwell fired off a letter in July to attorney Adam Levine, who represented the trainees. She said that during multiple interviews, trainees did not answer questions honestly. At a July 10 meeting, the would-be firefighters told her the tests were taken as “group tests” and proctor Jackson allowed it.

In her letter, she said the recruits also failed to give straightforward answers in interviews with investigators.

She wrote Levine that “the answers given during the interviews do not comport with what was offered during our meeting, and these differences cannot now be overcome.”

But Thursday, she was more forgiving of those who observed cheating and sat silent, then gave evasive answers. “We had a ruling by the state fire marshal some individuals were eligible for rehires if they met certain criteria,” she said. “I believe our value system, and new training requirements for our people going through the hiring and vetting gives me more confidence they’ll know what behavior is expected.”

Integrity is among the core values of the Las Vegas Fire Department, she said. “We do the right thing even when no one is watching; we take responsibility for our actions,” the department’s website states.

Fire Chief McDonald said he had nothing to add to what Fretwell and city spokesman David Riggleman said. He declined to answer whether he was comfortable hiring people who did not report cheating.

The current base salary of a firefighter trainee is $41,922 per year. Upon graduation the base salary of a new firefighter is $47,321 annually. There are currently 37 in this fire training academy, according to Riggleman.

The firefighter trainees were on track to graduate Feb. 14, 2013, but their graduation was blocked the day before. About a month later, the city announced that no one in the class would graduate.

As of that time, the cost to taxpayers was $718,984 or $51,356 per recruit, the amount the city invested in the academy and paid the academy members, who are salaried during training.

The consent degree was signed by 10 of the 14 trainees, and 12 trainees “denied having engaged in any culpable conduct … and they wish to challenge the determinations by the state fire marshal by the proper administrative channels.”

However, Mulvihill said they dropped their appeals to the State Board of Fire Services.

Mulvihill said the policy changes he implemented were directed more at the proctors than the cadets. “We felt all proctors statewide needed some retraining, so as of Dec. 31 2013, all their certifications were sunseted.” Anyone who wanted that specialized certification was required to go through additional training.

In other policy changes, proctors involved in exams with suspicious results are barred from conducting exams until the investigation is complete. Proctors who act improperly will be barred forever from conducting exams. Those suspected of cheating will have test results withheld until the investigation is finished.

Mulvihill said this was the first cheating scandal of this magnitude in Nevada since he began fire service here in 1987.

Contact reporter Jane Ann Morrison at jmorrison@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0275.