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L.A.'S DIRTY LAUNDRY; CITY COUNCIL WASHES HANDS OF EMPLOYEE THEFT CHARGES.

Byline: Beth Barrett Daily News Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council refused Police Chief Bernard C. Parks' plea Wednesday to consider firing two LAPD employees accused of theft, allowing them to get off without punishment.

In fact, the city now owes the men - a jail detention employee accused of taking three dirty mattress covers home and a mechanic accused of taking scrap metal out of the shop and selling it for $67.68 - about seven months' back pay.

Council members Laura Chick and Jackie Goldberg refused Parks' request to bring the issue to the council floor. Councilman Joel Wachs took up the issue, but the council voted 7-4 not to exercise its power under Proposition 5 of the City Charter to take jurisdiction of the case.

``When the chief of police tells you something is important to the city, it is unconscionable not to even talk about it,'' Wachs said.

``It's our duty - we're the governing body of the city, the ones who set the policies, including whether an employee caught stealing should be discharged. I think the majority of the council is always reluctant to buck the employee unions on things like this.''

Parks had urged the council to back him in his dispute with the Civil Service Commission, which refused to take disciplinary action against the men.

``I believe this sends the wrong message, not only to city employees but also to the public,'' Parks said in a statement. ``The public has an expectation that employees of the police department aren't going to be thieves.''

Parks made the unusual request of the council after an appeals officer recommended that senior detention officer Jorge Swayne and equipment mechanic David Betancourt should each be suspended for 20 days.

The appeals officer rejected the LAPD's recommendation that the men be dismissed, and he recommended that the theft charges be reduced to lesser infractions.

The commission asked Parks to accept the 20-day suspensions, and when he refused, faced a decision under the City Charter to either go along with the chief or impose no punishment at all.

Commission vote unanimous

On May 14, the commission unanimously voted to impose no punishment.

``Termination would not have been fair to these employees,' said commission President Sharon Schuster.

LAPD spokesman Cmdr. David Kalish said the department continues to ``strongly disagree'' and believes the acts were theft punishable under city guidelines by termination for a first offense. Both cases were filed with the City Attorney's Office but were declined based on the relatively small dollar values, he added.

In the absence of council reconsideration, the civilian employees will be reinstated in their jobs with back pay, according to Schuster and police officials.

Beverly Hills attorney Robert M. Ball said his client, Swayne, did not intend to steal three stained mattress covers but rather planned to use them to carry household objects to a new home. Swayne did not contest that he was unauthorized to possess the pads, but said he intended to wash and return them, Ball added.

Julie Butcher, general manager of SEIU Local 347, which represented Betancourt, said he is happy to be going back to work and to be exonerated after suffering six months of financial hardship with no paycheck.

In civil service hearing papers, Betancourt is alleged to have used a city truck to haul and sell scrap metal from the auto shop. He said he used the proceeds to buy tools he needed to rebuild city transmission units.

Discipline recommended

Betancourt, a 16-year employee, said in the documents he was not aware he had violated any city policy. The hearing officer recommended he be disciplined for not disclosing that his driver's license was suspended, records show.

Wachs said he had doubts about the commission's conclusions that the employees had not been engaged in theft.

``Sure, it's early in the morning and I'm going to wash them and bring them back. Give me a break,'' he said.

Council members Mark Ridley-Thomas, Rita Walters and Mike Hernandez joined Wachs in voting to take over the case.

The council members opposing doing so included Goldberg, Chick, John Ferraro, Richard Alatorre, Michael Feuer, Nate Holden and Cindy Miscikowski.

Goldberg, chairman of the Personnel Committee, said she read the commission reports and was convinced the cases and decisions were taken seriously.

She said she doesn't doubt Parks believes the employees committed theft but that his convictions don't carry more weight than the commission's deliberations.

Council intervention, she added, would be an inappropriate act of micro-management.

``There is a process here,'' Goldberg said. ``We haven't made general managers gods yet.''

Review time-consuming

Goldberg said a Proposition 5 review - of which there have been only two involving the discipline of city workers, according to union officials - would mean a full and time-consuming hearing.

``Is that really the council's role, to hold those kind of public hearings? This does not rise to that kind of extraordinary circumstance,'' she said.

Further, she said the nature of the cases and the commission's findings both weighed against terminating the two civilians. The punishment needs to fit the crime, she added.

``Termination is the death penalty, and you don't do it lightly.''

Chick, who heads the Public Safety Committee, said she is reluctant to overturn commission decisions.

``The council needs to be careful of taking on the role of judge and jury, and of deciding the fate of employees when there already is a very clear-cut and exhaustive process in place.

``The police chief seems to feel OK about the process most of the time. Just because he disagrees here doesn't mean the council should insert itself between a general manager and a mayor-appointed commission,'' Chick said.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 27, 1999
Words:945
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