Officers in scandal-torn Calif. city demand probe

AP News
Posted: Oct 28, 2010 11:40 PM
Officers in scandal-torn Calif. city demand probe

Leaders of this scandal-ridden city's police union, frustrated by what they see as a lack of urgency to investigate corruption in their own department, are calling for the suspension of a high-ranking police official and an investigation of their ousted former police chief.

Kurt Owens, vice president of the Bell Police Officers Association, said Thursday that he and other veteran officers knew for years of abusive towing practices that targeted Hispanic drivers and had heard allegations of police involvement in voter fraud. He said he and others complained to their superiors and to outside investigators, but saw little done to stop it.

"I've been to the FBI and the DA's office on issues like this and others that came up three or four years ago," Owens, a 23-year veteran of the department, told The Associated Press after a news conference outside the city's small police headquarters. "We were told, 'We think this is an interdepartment feud,' and, 'Bring us more evidence.'"

Since the Los Angeles Times reported in July that Bell's former city manager, police chief, and four of its five City Council members were among officials paid huge salaries to run the working-class city, several agencies have confirmed they are investigating.

Eight current and former officials of Bell, including the mayor, vice mayor and former city manager, were charged in September with misappropriating $5.5 million in public funds from the city, where one in six people live in poverty.

Prosecutors say former City Manager Robert Rizzo illegally created contracts that paid him about $1.5 million when perks like vacation, insurance and other benefits were added to his $787,637 salary. Four part-time city council members received salaries of nearly $100,000 a year.

Rizzo, former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and former Police Chief Randy Adams were forced to resign after the salary scandal broke. Adams was paid $457,000 a year to run a department of about 30 sworn officers. Spaccia was paid $376,288 a year.

Spaccia is one of the eight people facing criminal charges, but Adams is not. All have denied wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have also confirmed they are looking into allegations that city and police officials carried absentee ballots to residents' homes and told them whom to vote for.

The state Department of Corporations also has opened an investigation into the city's handling of bond issues over the last decade, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. The agency issued the city a subpoena on Monday, asking for documents pertaining to its bond sales, agency spokesman Mark Leyes told the Times.

The latest probe comes two weeks after the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it was looking into allegations that bond money was misused by Rizzo and others.

The Justice Department also is investigating claims Bell police profiled young Hispanic men in the largely Latino city as they trolled for drivers in a revenue-raising scheme that would result in cars being towed and impounded.

Meanwhile, state Attorney General Jerry Brown is suing current and former officials, including Adams, in an effort to recover the money he says they wrongly took.

Some people in Bell have speculated that Adams wasn't named in the criminal complaint because of his law-enforcement ties to District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Cooley, who has acknowledged knowing Adams professionally, has denied that. The district attorney, who is running for attorney general in next week's election, told reporters in September he would prosecute his own mother if he thought she had committed a crime.

Meanwhile, prosecutors say they are continuing to investigate. Dave Demerjian, who heads the public integrity division of the district attorney's office, said such probes can take months or years because of the tedious task of collecting documents and interviewing people. He said prosecutors began investigating Bell months before the salary scandal broke.

At Thursday's news conference, Owens and Officer Gilbert Jara, the Bell police union's president, demanded the suspension and investigation of Lt. Ty Henshaw, and the investigation of Adams. They also requested an update from city officials on Adams' status with the department, saying he has not removed his personal belongings from the station and they can find no record that he turned in his badge and gun.

They provided copies of an e-mail they said came from Rizzo, directing the city's head of administrative services to retroactively increase Henshaw's salary to $10,000 a month, boost it to $10,500 the following month and fully fund his pension.

"Ty has been the only one in the PD who has fully worked with us and I completely trust," Rizzo wrote.

Owens said Henshaw was known in the department as the enforcer of edicts from Adams and Rizzo, including one that patrol officers aggressively have cars towed. He said Henshaw once called four relatively new officers aside, telling them that if each patrol officer didn't account for at least three cars a day, the four would be laid off for lack of revenue.

Neither Henshaw nor interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo immediately responded to messages for comment left at the Police Department and City Hall.