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City of San Jose ordered to turn over records on the fire engine stripper drop off incident

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Grace Hase and Gabriel Greschler
The Mercury News

The city of San Jose was ordered by a judge on Friday to hand over investigatory documents related to a tawdry episode in October where a bikini-clad woman was seen stepping out of an on-duty firetruck and toward the Pink Poodle strip club.

In May, The Mercury News sued the city after it repeatedly refused to release records about its internal probe of the Oct. 5 scandal and any subsequent disciplinary actions taken against the firefighters involved. Despite multiple attempts from reporters and a media attorney to obtain the documents through routine records requests, the city argued their release was not in the public’s interest and would have violated the employees’ privacy.

In his ruling, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas E. Kuhnle wrote that the law requires the city to give over investigatory records whenever it imposes discipline on an employee — and that the highly publicized incident garnered enough evidence and importance to compel full disclosure.

The crew on the firetruck, Kuhnle wrote, “occupy a position of ‘trust and responsibility,’ and thus the public has a legitimate interest in knowing whether and how (San Jose Fire Department) enforces its policies.”

In a statement, Mayor Matt Mahan applauded Kuhnle’s ruling.

“As somebody who has been pushing for more and faster transparency on this matter, the judge’s decision is good news,” the mayor wrote. “The public will now be able to see key details of the investigation themselves, and understand why significant discipline was imposed and that San Jose won’t tolerate deviation from the high standards the vast majority of our workforce upholds every day.”

It was not immediately clear whether the city intended to appeal Judge Kuhnle’s decision. City Attorney Nora Frimann and Fire Chief Robert Sapien did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

“We are very pleased with the court’s decision affirming the compelling public interest in the details of this case,” said Frank Pine, executive editor of the Bay Area News Group, in a statement. “It’s unfortunate we had to appeal to the authority of the court to obtain these documents, but we are committed to ensuring local government is accountable to the people and to fighting for the public’s right to know.”

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, called the ruling an “unequivocal win for transparency.”

“The law is just crystal clear,” he said. “It is surprising that the city failed to disclose the records when it was asked of them.”

In a final attempt to keep the records hidden on Thursday, Deputy City Attorney Elisa Tolentino argued at a hearing that the city policy violations committed by the firefighters weren’t “substantial” enough to justify the release of the records being sought. Last month, after The Mercury News sued, the city finally revealed through a disciplinary log posted on the city’s website that a fire captain on Engine 4 was demoted this year for violating the policy on the use of city and personal vehicles, the city’s code of ethics, and fire department rules and regulations.

City officials confirmed the discipline was related to the Pink Poodle incident, but no other information was given as to why the captain was demoted, and they were not named.

Tolentino also on Thursday downplayed comments made by then-Mayor Sam Liccardo, who called for “heads to roll” in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, arguing that his remarks were made before any formal investigation began.

The incident was captured on video and shared by an Instagram account called San Jose Foos, with a caption reading, “Only in San Jose do you see a stripper come out of a firetruck.”

So far, only two brief memos from Fire Chief Sapien to the city council have been released about the October scandal.

In March, Sapien apologized for the first time and stated that the incident was “seriously misaligned” with the department’s values and mission. Sapien also said that standards of conduct would be reinforced for employees. In another memo in April released in response to “significant public inquiries”, Sapien offered more details of the incident, saying that fire crews were dropping off an unauthorized male passenger who worked at the Pink Poodle strip club on South Bascom Avenue when the bikini-clad woman asked the crew for a ride-along. The firefighters at first refused, he said, but eventually acquiesced after the woman “persisted.”

According to the April memo, the firetruck drove around the club for approximately four minutes and subsequently dropped the woman off at the Pink Poodle at 9:10 p.m. The firetruck then drove to AJ’s Bar, a bikini bar on Lincoln Avenue about two miles away from the strip club. It stayed there for several minutes before returning to the fire station at 9:20 p.m.

Both Sapien and the city refused to give an explanation for the second stop. Records uncovered in the fall revealed that there were no calls to service at either the Pink Poodle or AJ’s.

The “World Famous” Pink Poodle is located at 328 South Bascom Ave. and is the city’s only all-nude strip club. It first opened in 1963.

The city has 30 days to hand over the documents to The Mercury News.

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