Recent revelations of how the FBI investigated General Michael Flynn have many Americans wondering how prevalent these types of abuses are in the criminal justice system. Examples have come to light that show that this issue is not just federal, but occur at the state and local levels as well. One such case is illustrated in a lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol that alleges a criminal investigation was used to unlawfully terminate the bulk of the predominantly-Latino, East Los Angeles station in possible retaliation against a grievance.
In 2019, the California Highway Patrol conducted a "criminal" investigation resulting in the termination of 50 officers assigned to the East LA station for "fraudulently receiving hundreds of hours of overtime pay." In a public announcement of their investigation, CHP claimed to have evidence that officers exaggerated hours worked protecting road work crews for CalTrans, receiving pay for eight hours of overtime when they may have only been on site for three or four hours. What the CHP failed to include in a public condemnation of these officers was the fact that, like in most states, CalTrans pre-scheduled CHP officers to protect their road work crews; but finished work early on many occasions. CHP's own records indicate the officers in question filed paperwork and stayed on call awaiting in case the road crew needed them until the end of the shift.
Put simply, if you paid a contractor for eight hours of work; but you only needed three hours to finish the job, you still have to pay for the hours you scheduled them for.
Regardless, former LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who represents the officers, claims that the CHP spent upwards of $20 million in taxpayer dollars to terminate 50 of the 115 officers serving East LA for the supposed waste of $360,000 in pre-scheduled overtime funds. My training from the Association of Inspectors General, triggered obvious questions to what oversight existed from CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley and his boss, Gov. Gavin Newsom; who recently threatened to lay off first responders in his cash-strapped state.
The lawsuit presents striking evidence of inappropriate investigative procedures used by the CHP. If there were truly grounds to investigate 50 officers for a widespread conspiracy to commit overtime fraud, standard law enforcement practices would be to assign the case to Internal Affairs investigators who would conduct their case in careful coordination with the District Attorney's Office. Instead, this case was handled by a random team of road supervisors from CHP station under the command of the same assistant chief responsible for East LA; a potential conflict of interest.
Furthermore, anyone trained in the detection of this type of waste, fraud and abuse will tell you that this case should have probably been handled by an Office of the Inspector General, as the primary question should have been why road crews were leaving early when they paid for an eight-hour detail.
More alarmingly, the CHP claimed that alleged overtime irregularities were isolated to the East LA station alone. However, the lawsuit gleaned evidence that the practice is common throughout California and the nation. Evidence shows that the procedure that these officers lost their career and reputations for has existed for decades, and that the very chiefs who terminated them had participated in similar details when they were officers.
"There is no crime!" Cooley said. "CHP management knew the conduct was a decades-old custom and practice that officers — including themselves — followed. When one knows the big picture of CHP overtime these charges reek of retaliation and management hypocrisy."
So why was this lengthy, costly "criminal" investigation opened to target these officers? Evidence obtained in the lawsuit illustrates the investigation as a possible act of whistleblower retaliation on the part of Assistant Chief Dan Minor, who oversees 12 LA County stations. In evidence shared by Mr. Cooley, the complaint against the CHP indicates that Minor initiated the case in response to a grievance filed by two Latino CHP officers against East LA station Lt. Melissa Hammond. Testimony shows that Hammond personally called Minor, of whom she regarded a "mentor" and summoned him to the station, despite the fact that Minor is two ranks higher than her. The station's administrative sergeant stated that when Minor arrived, he angrily threatened to lock the two officers up for filing their grievance.
The alleged abuse centers on the fact that Minor's investigative "team" sought search warrants on the officers beginning on July 2018 through July 2019, for records going back to 2016. After attorneys for the officers made pre-filing presentations to the LA County District Attorney and CHP attorneys, the CHP withdrew requests for criminal filings. However, CHP continued to use the records seized in these criminal warrants in personnel actions against the officers, which Cooley says is unlawful. This is why Cooley filed a legal petition which alleges the CHP violated the California Electronic Communications Protection Act (CECPA) by obtaining criminal search warrants knowing that no crimes were committed and where no probable cause existed. Furthermore, the CHP violated orders attached to these warrants by illegally disseminating sealed evidence to the team leading the administrative proceedings and others in Minor's command.
In 2019, Commissioner Warren Stanley said "that he was appalled at the scope of the alleged misconduct by law enforcement officials and indicated it extended beyond officers to higher-level managers." Interestingly, the lawsuit cites a written policy that officers contracted for eight hours of overtime who are released early from Caltrans duty may receive pay for the entire time as long as they stand by at the office. The cited policy was written in 2012, the year that Stanley was promoted from chief in the Southern Division (which oversees East LA) to assistant commissioner, which oversees Internal Affairs. Considering that some of the fired officers were actually promoted while they were supposedly under investigation, the CHP didn't demonstrate a specific concern for their integrity.
The questions remain:
- Did the CHP terminate 50 of its hardest working officers in response to a grievance filed by two?
- Why did an investigation of a statewide policy single out only one ethnically diverse station?
- By shifting the blame to these officers, is CHP pinning a statewide culture of wasteful spending by its parent agency, the California Department of Transportation on officers from one station, or
- Was this just a failure to supervise Assistant Chief Minor's potential retaliation for the grievance against Lt. Hammond?
Fran Clader, CHP Director of Communications declined to comment on this matter "because of the investigation and pending litigation."
Either way, the lawsuit shows that the CHP abused its authority to criminally investigate officers who, at the end of the day, were merely targets for administrative violations. Similar to the cases of Bernard Kerik, Gen. Flynn and even myself, the need for intense oversight and investigative review is needed to prevent the government from using a criminal "investigation" to get defendants fired.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his two and a half decade career on both sides the criminal justice system. Mannes served in both federal and municipal law enforcement in though the 9/11 attacks, D.C.-area sniper task force, homeland security exercises and natural disasters. Mannes' work in D.C. led to personal encounters with the D.C.'s unlawful personnel actions, unconstitutional gun laws and criminal justice inequalities, which led him to become an advocate for public integrity. Thereafter, Mannes served for nearly nine years as the Director, Office of Investigations for North America's largest medical board, as a Chief Compliance Officer, consultant, expert witness, nonprofit board member and political adviser. Read A. Benjamin Mannes' Reports — More Here.
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