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'Culture Of Corruption' Alleged At CHP's East LA Station; Officers Fight Back

The entrance to a CHP station has a circular cement patio with a cutout garden area with an eagle marker in it.
The CHP's East L.A. station has been in turmoil since an investigation launched last year into alleged overtime fraud.
(Megan Garvey
/
LAist)
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An investigation into alleged overtime fraud at the California Highway Patrol's East L.A. station has led to massive turnover, leaving rookies to patrol some of the state's busiest freeways and a top CHP official to call the episode a "very, very dark stain" on the department's history.

But some people ensnared in the investigation are taking the unusual step of speaking out about personnel matters, saying the officers were following a longstanding practice at the station. They also question whether the cost of putting so many people on paid leave for months has now outpaced any alleged fraud.

CHP Division Chief Mark Garrett told KPCC/LAist the issue goes beyond dollar figures to the integrity of the CHP.

"This was a culture of corruption by a group of greedy officers who had developed a system involving supervisors that created a firewall between themselves and managers like myself," he said.

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One former sergeant said he was among five veterans who retired early after being informed they were under investigation.

"I'm not running from anything," said Bill Preciado, who worked for CHP for 28 years before leaving in January. "I know it's something I did not do and I'm not going to put myself through this."

So far three officers have been fired, Preciado claims.

CHP officials acknowledged three East L.A. officers no longer work for the department, but would not provide a reason for their departure.

Preciado also claims at least 25 other officers have been placed on paid administrative leave.

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Garrett said "some people are on administrative time off" and "some people have left the department," but he declined to provide further details.

The department said it would not comment on other personnel matters because the investigation remains active.

None of the officers are being represented by their union, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, which issued this statement about the overtime fraud investigation: "On behalf of the 14,000 men and women who make up our membership, we are saddened by these allegations."

A spokesperson for the association did not return calls for additional comment.

About a dozen officers have hired a well-connected law firm helmed by former L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley to defend their jobs and reputations. Cooley said after looking into the allegations, he believes the department is "harming good officers."

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THE SCOPE OF THE INVESTIGATION

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The East L.A. CHP station has been under scrutiny since last August when the departmemt began investigating dozens of officers for allegedly fraudulently putting in for overtime they did not work. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Garrett announced the investigation -- which began in August -- at a news conference in February. Now, he says department investigators are "in discussions" with the L.A. County District Attorney's office about possible criminal charges against officers.

The investigation began after the CHP found "anomalies" in the overtime work performed by East L.A. officers for Caltrans. An initial inquiry found about $360,000 in fraudulent overtime but Garrett said the amount could go higher. The investigation remains "dynamic," he said.

While the investigation continues, the CHP recently assigned 19 new cadets directly out of the academy to the East L.A. station and plans to add "another large contingent" to "rebuild the culture there," said Garrett.

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Approximately 100 officers and 10 sergeants typically work at the East L.A. station.

THE DISPUTE

At issue is how East L.A. officers put in for non-required overtime.

The distinction between how so-called "forced overtime" is handled and how voluntary overtime is handled is critical in this investigation. The CHP is reimbursed for work officers do for outside agencies or businesses.

CHP managers can compel officers to work overtime if necessary. When that happens, officers get paid in minimum four-hour increments. According to people familiar with the department's protocol, it works like this: If an officer has to go into overtime to testify in traffic court, but it only takes 30 minutes, he or she still gets paid for four hours of work.

When the overtime is voluntary -- like the Caltrans work -- Garrett said officers should only get paid for the time actively spent on the job.

But that's not how it worked at the East L.A. station.

Beginning around 2008, according to one retired officer, the East L.A. station developed its own standard operating procedure that allowed officers to continue to get paid for a full eight-hour shift, even if the work ended early:

"If Caltrans ends a detail early due to unforeseen circumstances but continues to pay the officer, the officer shall remain available to Caltrans by standing by at the office," according to a memo on the procedure obtained by KPCC/LAist dated 2012.

One retired veteran told KPCC/LAist the reality was that some officers went home instead of waiting at the office for a callback to the freeway. In any case, he acknowledged that those calls rarely came.

The man, who spent 29 years with the CHP -- including several years at the East L.A. station -- spoke on the condition he not be named out of concern his comments could affect the integrity of the investigation.

"I am not saying what these officers did was right," he said. But he called placing so many officers on paid leave for so long and firing some of them a "draconian approach" by management -- some of whom he said likely knew about the practice previously.

Preciado, who said no one has yet questioned him in connection with the investigation, said it was widely understood that "you're on standby" and would still get paid.

"That was the general understanding going back easily 20 years," he said.

WHY EAST LA WAS DIFFERENT

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The Caltrans Bandini maintenance yard where CHP officer met up with maintenance crews is a relatively short distance from the East L.A. station. (Photo by Megan Garvey for LAist)

The East L.A. station had a reputation for providing frequent opportunities for lucrative overtime, which had made it a popular choice for transfers, according to officers who worked there.

Across the state, overtime can be a significant source of income for CHP officers. Transparent California, which reports public salaries, lists dozens of CHP patrol officers across the state who doubled (or more) their six-figure base salaries in 2017, the most recent year available.

There were additional factors in play that set East L.A. apart from other stations, according to Preciado.

First, he said the regular shifts in East L.A. were shorter than other stations, eight hours instead of 10 to 12 hours. That mattered when it came to overtime because the CHP prohibits officers from working more than 16 1/2 hours in a row.

And that made the East L.A. officers better positioned to pick up Caltrans protection work in L.A. County. Under an agreement between the CHP and Caltrans, officers throughout the state provide protection to freeway maintenance crews. The work is not considered regular CHP patrol hours. Officers instead are paid overtime, and Caltrans reimburses the CHP.

The East L.A. Station in Monterey Park is also the shortest distance to Caltrans' Bandini Maintenance Yard, which serves all of L.A. County. Officers would usually meet crews there to begin their shift, Preciado said.

"We had people transferring in for that reason," he said, noting officers needed the money for "whatever ... personal things may be going on in life," such as "a kid's graduation" or "you want to get some money for a boat."

Most of the work, including removing graffiti and replacing the raised markers on lane lines, is performed overnight. Officers in CHP cruisers with their emergency lights flashing are positioned near Caltrans workers to make sure motorists don't get too close to them.

At the East L.A. station, officers would sign up for the overtime work and it would be assigned by Preciado and other sergeants on a rotating basis. Preciado said some officers, who got first choice of shifts, would work as many as three Caltrans overtime shifts a week

"If I chose to work maybe three days a week, I could more than likely get it three days a week as an officer," Preciado said. If no officers were available, sergeants would take the shift, he said.

Sometimes, Preciado would allow an officer to end their regular afternoon shift early to work the overtime for Caltrans, he said. The shift is normally 1:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m.

"He would end his timecard at 8 o'clock. The new one would start at 8 o'clock, but that's on a different timecard because it's an overtime timecard," Preciado said.

On Monday, Caltrans provided KPCC/LAist with copies of its current contracts with the CHP governing work and pay for road maintenance and construction protection details.

Each contract states that, generally, if a CHP officer works less than a four-hour shift, Caltrans will pay for four hours' work. The agreements don't address situations in which an officer might work more than four hours but fewer than eight.

Together the two contracts provide for a maximum of $169 million to pay overtime statewide over their three-year terms.

SO WHAT CHANGED?

Last year, managers in the East L.A. station started limiting the amount of CalTans work officers could perform at the station, according to the retired veteran.

He said officers upset about the limitations, which prohibited any more weekend nighttime work, filed a grievance with their union, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen.

"I believe management got very angry at the grievance and decided we are going to put the screws on them," the unnamed retired commander said. "This is retaliatory."

Garrett said the investigation is not retaliatory and has nothing to do with the labor grievance.

"It's so erroneous, it's laughable," he said.

Preciado claimed other stations engaged in similar practices. Garrett said the department conducted preliminary checks at more than 100 stations around the state and found nothing of the sort.

"We believe beyond any doubt that this is isolated to the East Los Angeles area," Garrett said.

THE INVESTIGATION TODAY

Some officers have been on paid administrative leave for as many as eight months, according to Preciado.

Garrett would not provide numbers on how many officers have been on paid leave, how long they had been on leave or what that had cost the department.

"We are doing what we think is the ethical and moral thing to do," Garrett said. "We believe that there was some improper, at the very least, behavior that occurred."

Caltrans is cooperating with the CHP's investigation, according to a statement from the agency.

"We take this matter very seriously. Once the criminal investigation [of CHP officers] is complete, any misconduct by Caltrans employees will be investigated," the statement said.

Officers on paid leave have had to turn in their badges and guns and are required to remain at home during daytime business hours, according to the department. They must be reachable by phone and any arrangements to leave their homes must be cleared with management.

"Psychologically, it's gotten to them," Preciado said. He said some of his former colleagues are experiencing marital challenges because the officers are home all the time and there's anxiety about their financial future.

THE DEFENSE

Former District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose firm is representing more than a dozen of the officers involved, said he and his associates plan to meet with the DA's Justice System Integrity Division to try to convince them there was no criminal wrongdoing.

For instance, Cooley said he believed that in an era of mass communications, it was not necessary for the officers to be at the station and in uniform to be on-call.

"With cell phones and emails and constant communication," he said, "it would be very reasonable to perhaps go someplace else and be in a position to respond to Caltrans."

For his part, Preciado said it's been hard to have the law enforcement organization he loves target him and the men and women he supervised for years. He said he and his officers prided themselves on making sure they could be available when Caltrans workers needed protection.

"It's a kick in the gut," said Preciado, whose face may be familiar to many Southern California residents as the man in CHP uniform who provided traffic updates for several years on local TV stations.

"I didn't dedicate myself to be called a thief," Preciado said. "And to say this many people are crooked? No."

He also questioned the wisdom of taking so many veterans off the streets, leaving a busy station he says is now "saturated with a bunch of rookies that have not been tested on the job."

"You have field training officers coming in from other areas to train these officers," he added.

Garrett said the CHP is working closely with the training officers and rookies to ensure the department fulfills its duties to keep East L.A. freeways safe.

"At the end of the day this is going to be good for the East L.A. station," he said. "We are going to rebuild the culture there. We are going to learn from this experience, and we are going to make it better for everyone in the community there."

UPDATES:

11:30 a.m.: This article was updated to include Division Chief Garrett's quotes regarding the number of officers who retired or were put on administrative leave.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated to include information from the Caltrans contracts with the CHP.