Ex-fire official may avoid jail in training scandal
IOWA CITY — A former fire academy administrator could avoid jail after allegedly falsifying test scores that were used to improperly certify thousands of Iowa firefighters, a scandal that has rocked the profession, court records revealed Wednesday.
Filings show former Fire Services Training Bureau certification and accreditation manager John McPhee has agreed to plead guilty to felonious misconduct in office. Judge James Malloy has scheduled a guilty plea hearing for April 26 at the courthouse in Nevada, Iowa, and sentencing would be held at a later date.
Story County prosecutors have agreed to recommend a sentence of two years’ probation, an unspecified amount of fines and restitution and 100 hours of community service. A five-year prison term would be suspended. But Judge Malloy would not be bound by those recommendations and could opt for a different sentence for McPhee, 49, who is free on bond. The charge carries a maximum of five years in prison.
McPhee was arrested in January, when the Iowa Department of Public Safety announced that 1,706 firefighters and emergency personnel had been awarded nationally-recognized certifications despite failing written exams. The agency announced last month it had discovered 739 more firefighters who were affected, bringing the total to 2,445, or about 10 percent of those statewide. Those affected will be required to retake exams by the end of the year or start over on their certifications, which aren’t mandatory statewide but are required by some departments to be hired and promoted.
McPhee, who began at the Ames-based academy in 1998, assigned random scores to exams without checking or correcting them from January 2012 through May 2016, according to a criminal complaint. The state hasn’t offered a motive for his actions. His attorney, F. Montgomery Brown, said he wasn’t ready to comment.
The bureau has started offering free retesting around the state for those affected. But leaders in the mostly-volunteer profession worry that some firefighters will not retake the tests and quit, adding to an existing shortage in some areas.
The certifications covered areas such as basic firefighting knowledge, investigation, hazardous materials handling and operation of firetrucks. They carried the seals of two accreditation agencies, were recognized by departments in other states and used as prerequisites for more advanced training.
McPhee and bureau director Randal Novak were placed on leave a year ago after an audit discovered discrepancies in test scores and authorities launched an investigation into scoring and certification processes involving classes offered there. McPhee resigned last June. Novak, who wasn’t charged, retired.
State Sen. Jeff Danielson, who is also a firefighter, had previously said those responsible for the scandal should go to jail. He said Wednesday he wants more details about the amount of restitution McPhee faces but said the punishment sounds like it would fit the crime.
“If the judge thinks he needs jail time, I’d support that as well,” he said.
Danielson said he hopes the resolution will allow McPhee to explain his actions so the state can understand the full scope of the testing problems and how to prevent future issues. He said the scandal is impacting all Iowa firefighters as their colleagues miss work to retake training courses and tests.
“Iowans need to know that they are probably incurring their own personal costs and time away from work to do that,” he said. “We should thank them for it.”