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FIRED OVER LEWD INCIDENT, LAX COP REINSTATED.

Byline: KERRY CAVANAUGH Staff Writer

An LAX Police officer who was fired after he pleaded no contest to making lewd gestures and comments to two teenage girls has been ordered reinstated to his job by the city Civil Service Commission.

The case has sparked outrage among some city and airport officials, who warned that the city faces the potential of a costly lawsuit if the officer gets in trouble again.

``Here the city is looking at putting an individual back in uniform to protect the public, who has a gun and the ability to detain anyone, including a minor,'' Deputy City Attorney Jean- Claude Bertet wrote in a brief filed on behalf of Los Angeles World Airports.

``A mistake by the city could be severe, not just in liability to the city, but to the mental capacity of a young individual made into a victim of sexual abuse.''

Airport Officer Anthony Edwards was originally charged with annoying or molesting a child under 18 over an off-duty incident in Long Beach in 2003. He pleaded no contest to a reduced misdemeanor public-nuisance charge.

But the Civil Service Commission ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove the allegations because the victim, now 18, refused to testify, saying she was afraid.

The panel on Thursday ordered Edwards reinstated, with full back pay and benefits since his firing in September 2005.

LAWA officials, who oversee Los Angeles International Airport, vowed to continue to try to have the officer fired.

``Los Angeles World Airports is very disappointed with the commission's decision. We still feel that the employee should not be reinstated to his duties and we are studying our options on how to respond,'' said airports spokeswoman Nancy Castles.

Edwards' attorney, Stephen Horvath, said the commission's decision is fair because the city couldn't produce witnesses to prove Edwards' behavior.

``If we would allow people to lose their jobs without any direct testimony, then the whole system would be shot. You have to have evidence that somebody did something before we take their job away,'' Horvath said.

Civil Service Commission files show Edwards' case stems from an incident in July 2003, when Edwards was off-duty and allegedly drove alongside two teenage girls walking home from school on Artesia Boulevard. Edwards allegedly made sexual comments while appearing to masturbate in his car, gesticulating with his hand.

Long Beach police investigated and the girls picked Edwards' photo out of a lineup.

In an agreement, Edwards pleaded no contest -- the equivalent of a guilty plea in a criminal case -- to a reduced charge of causing a public nuisance. He was sentenced to three years' probation.

The LAX Police Department's Internal Affairs Department conducted its own review, interviewed Edwards and decided to fire him for ``misconduct off the job which seriously reflects on city employment.''

During that internal investigation, Edwards denied the incident and said he would never make sexual comments to a minor.

The case file shows he told investigators he pleaded no contest because his attorney told him it was a minor charge that would end the case and could eventually be expunged from his record.

Edwards appealed his firing to the city's Civil Service Commission, which held hearings earlier this year.

Horvath argued that Edwards deserved a right to clear his name.

``Edwards vehemently denies participating in the vile behavior that is alleged against him here, and steadfastly maintains that he has been misidentified and wrongly accused,'' Horvath argued.

Because Edwards' conviction was for a public nuisance -- instead of a more serious charge of annoying or molesting a child -- Christopher D. Burdick, the commission's hearing examiner, said LAWA had to prove lewd conduct occurred.

Rather than rely on the Long Beach police investigation, the hearing examiner wanted the primary victim -- now 18 -- to testify in person about the incident.

The young woman refused, saying she feared that Edwards would seek revenge. Without the victim's testimony, Burdick decided the Long Beach police investigation was hearsay and ruled that Edwards be reinstated.

``There is no direct, admissable nonhearsay evidence that Edwards did anything to any child under 18 years old,'' Burdick wrote.

LAWA appealed, arguing that Edwards' no-contest plea was an admission that something occurred. But the five-member Civil Service Commission voted 3-2 to reinstate Edwards.

``I'm saying to myself if that city prosecutor plea-bargained this down (to a public nuisance) because he didn't think he could win the case, then this hearing officer is right,'' Commissioner John Perez, a retired government teacher and former teachers union president, said in an interview after the hearing.

Perez said the commission has upheld most of the firings it has reviewed, but felt this case raised civil liberty issues: The commission couldn't essentially convict Edwards on hearsay and deny him a chance to defend himself against his accuser.

``The court tells you, where the evidence is split, a tie goes to the defendant,'' Perez said.

Airport officials said the decision forces them to reinstate Edwards to a job for which he is no longer qualified because he has a misdemeanor public-nuisance conviction on his record.

``The outcome was unfortunate,'' said Personnel Department General Manager Margaret Whelan. ``It's certainly not what we want to see when it comes to dealing with employees who should not be in the workplace.''

kerry.cavanaugh(at)dailynews.com

(213) 978-0390
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 28, 2006
Words:884
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