Fire district watchdog helped find MLK’s assasin
Near the close of a January committee meeting, a nuts-and-bolts sit down where El Dorado Hills Fire District policies are hammered out before going to the full board, Director Lou Barber turned to the lone member of the public in attendance. “Dick, do you have anything else to add?”
“I’m good,” replied Dick Ross, who’d just spent the better part of an hour questioning every penny — and there weren’t many of them — in a proposed contract to provide emergency response to the neighboring Latrobe Fire District.
The deference to Ross, 69, is indicative of the respect the El Dorado Hills resident and former FBI agent gets from the board, the chiefs, the firemen and also from a handful of fellow citizen watchdogs that show up sporadically at board meetings.
“A lot of this stuff isn’t easy or fun,” said Barber. “Dick does the homework and has a grasp of what we’re doing. I wish there were more of him at these meetings.”
Ross’ meeting deme
anor is more dour than amicable. He’s a self-described penny-pincher who’s questioned proposed spending on everything from the most recent firefighter union contract to a replacement engine that was available cheap from the cash-strapped city of Lincoln.
“The fact that you’ve got money doesn’t mean you have to spend it, and it doesn’t mean that what you have spent is well-spent,” he said.
Ross admits that he sometimes questions his sanity for spending so much time sitting opposite the board, “digging through all this stuff when no one else does,” then answers his own question. “That’s exactly why I should, because no one else does, at least no one that isn’t wearing a uniform.”
His 40-plus years of executive leadership in a potpourri of state and federal agencies has taught Ross that, “There’s always room for greater efficiency in government operations.”
Ross worries that the respect fire agencies garnered in the post-911 political climate has a timid public unwilling to question their local fire department. “Nobody wants to suggest that the firemen could be bad guys,” he said.
Ross knows a thing or two about the power of organizational image from his 30-plus years with the FBI, “an organization whose image might be its greatest asset,” he said. “But image shouldn’t prevent a citizen from asking if a good job is being done.”
Ross said he finds inspiration by recalling a framed caricature of a boy pointing to a nearly naked emperor which hung on the wall in the office of a “salty old bureau chief” installed by J. Edgar Hoover to ensure the bureau was a tight ship.
“As a young agent, seeing that in the hallowed halls of the FBI reminded me that we have to think for ourselves, not just take other people’s word for what’s going on, no matter if it’s a royal robe or rubber boots and a fireproof coat,” he explained. “This whole system of participatory government only works if there’s someone outside, like that little boy, looking at what’s really there.”
Ross graduated from law school at the University of Iowa and passed the bar in 1966 during the Vietnam War. “I had a draft number and knew that there was a government job in my future, it was just a question of where,” he said.
He applied and was accepted at the FBI. A year later, FBI training complete, the kid from snowy Iowa found himself driving a Mustang coupe down the eastern seaboard to his first assignment.
“They sent me to Tampa in February,” he recalled. “I was in heaven.”
In his freshman posting he did a lot of background investigations, and also got to work on bank robberies and fugitive cases, he said. “It was all fun to me.”
Leadership opportunity arrived early in Ross’s FBI career. While he was briefly filling in as interim head of the Tampa office, a frightened local builder walked in and reported that a county supervisor had solicited a bribe.
The rookie had to make a decision fast, a decision that could make or break his fledgling FBI career.
“This was the Hoover era, and you didn’t mess around,” he recalled. “There were retributions if things didn’t go well.”
He convinced his handlers at headquarters to fund the bribe, and approved a sting operation that went off flawlessly. Agents arrested the supervisor, who quickly struck a deal to share the loot with two fellow dirty supes the next day.
“In a 48-hour period we shut down the Hillsborough County government,” recalled Ross. “It was like riding a rodeo bull.”
The brave contractor inspired the fresh-faced FBI agent. “I’ll always remember his courage,” said Ross. “He was one citizen who wanted to do the right thing.”
Ross was transferred to Los Angeles in the spring of 1968, and hoped he’d scored a second dream posting.
James Earl Ray
Dr. Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis before Ross got to California. The sophomore agent arrived to find his dream posting on fire, with rioting across greater Los Angeles.
“It was all hands on deck,” he recalled. He spent his first few days at the police command center coordinating logistics and filling in as needed.
When things settled down, he was assigned to the domestic security squad, which was desperate to find King’s assassin, who remained unknown.
Ross had a small but critical role in the investigation. Agents had recovered a laundry tag with no name or address, but an important clue. The number on the tag contained an offset digit, a printing aberration that might identify the cleaner patronized by the assassin. A copy of a laundry tag might even include a name or address.
Field agents across the country, including Ross, were dispatched to local laundries to find the matching printer.
Ross and his partner stumbled on it in Hollywood. Better still, the proprietor kept copies of all his old receipts, “boxes and boxes of them, all filed neatly,” recalled Ross.
The two agents started digging and didn’t stop until they had a matching receipt containing the name “E. Gault,” an alias used by James Earl Ray.
With a name, albeit an alias, and the location, Hollywood, the investigation advanced quickly. Ray was captured at Heathrow airport less than two months later.
Ross was also on duty when Bobby Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and recalls the tension. “In that era, in that agency, during a crisis, everyone was on pins and needles. You didn’t dally in Mr. Hoover’s bureau.”
His stint in Los Angeles eventually became the dream posting he’d hoped for. He met his wife Donna, then got promoted to supervisor in the domestic security arena. He stayed with the bureau for 30 years in various postings around the country, the last of which was Sacramento, where he retired in 1997 and launched a second career in state government.
State agency leadership
Ross took a deputy commissioner post with the state Department of Insurance and later headed up the entire fraud division. The appointment provided an upfront seat for the scandal-plagued downfall of his boss, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.
He subsequently served on former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review Panel.
In 2004 he was appointed to head the Bureau of Auto Repair, which licenses auto repair and smog shops for the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
With Indian gaming compacts coming on line up and down the state, he jumped at the chance to lead the state Gambling Control Commission’s compliance division in 2006, and held the post until August 2010.
With 12 years of state service, Ross qualified for CalPERS. One mailing mentioned a vacancy on the CalPERS board, which was embroiled in a bribery scandal at the time. Ross recalls thinking, “They need a cop on that board.”
He gathered the necessary signatures and applied. Reviewing the biographies of the other nine candidates he quickly realized that most had strong union affiliations.
Despite having no affiliations whatsoever, he came in second out of the 10 candidates, forcing a runoff in which he garnered 78,000 votes but in October 2011 lost handily to Michael Bilbrey, his union-backed opponent.
His CalPERS experience made Ross a student of the politics and behavior of boards, and those who influence them. He saw the special interest groups and lobbyists, and said he worries that a similar phenomenon is happening at El Dorado Hills Fire Board meetings, which are also sparsely attended by the public. “But the union guys are there,” he said. “They’re very bright and they know what’s going on.”
Ross see’s the firefighter’s union as “a group that has recognized their current situation and (has) taken full advantage of the opportunity before them.”
The members “all seem like good guys and good firemen,” he said. “The only question is should we be paying as much as we do for their service?”
That question harkens back to the image factor, he said. “No one wants to oppose these guys.”
Firefighters enjoy a special bond that regular employees, especially government workers, rarely experience, said Ross, who recalls having the same bond with his fellow agents at the FBI. “We had each others back, thick or thin, just like these guys.”
He worries that such devotion crosses over into political activism and contract negotiations, and can lead to “a circling of the wagons,” he said, “It’s insular and there’s no countervailing structure.”
Ross doesn’t want to diminish the good work that either the firefighters or the fire board do for the residents of El Dorado Hills. He praised the board for the volume of work they do for a meager $100 per meeting stipend.
“But as taxpayers, we can’t assume they will always make good decisions for us,” he said.
The problem, said Ross, who’s worked in organizations run by J. Edgar Hoover and Chuck Quackenbush, is “Politics and power have an impact on how you do your job.”
Even board members with the best intentions “begin to hear themselves and confuse their voice with the voice of the public,” he said. “So people need to pay attention.”
Would Ross ever consider running for the fire board? “I don’t think so,” he said. “If I ran, who’d be the public?”