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Top L.A. County sheriff's official steps down amid investigation into purchase of stolen car

Top L.A. County sheriff's official steps down amid investigation into purchase of stolen car
Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans, third from left, is retiring after an investigation was launched into his purchase of a stolen vehicle. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A top-ranking Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department official has abruptly announced his retirement amid an internal investigation into his purchase of a stolen Audi sedan from a tow-yard owner with a department contract.

Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans' decision to retire put a quick end to what would have been one of Sheriff Jim McDonnell's biggest tests in dealing with allegations of misconduct by a high-ranking official.

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McDonnell was elected last year after a series of scandals that resulted in criminal charges against numerous officials, including the agency's former No. 2. McDonnell has vowed to take a tough stand on disciplinary matters, though it's unclear what role, if any, he played in Rothans' retirement.

The investigation, which began Oct. 1 after The Times inquired about the car, will continue, said Cmdr. Keith Swensson, a department spokesman, even though the sheriff no longer has to decide whether to discipline Rothans.

"The outcome was decided by Mike when he decided to retire," Swensson said. "That said, there is no question that the sheriff holds everyone accountable at every rank equally."

The investigation may still prove useful by providing guidance for other sheriff's officials, Swensson said. If there is evidence that any crimes were committed, the case will be forwarded to the district attorney's office.

"What we're hoping is we find any errors that the department has made so we can correct it, so anything in the future won't happen again," Swensson said.

Rothans, 53, who is stepping down two years before he would be eligible for full retirement benefits, has denied any wrongdoing. He made a base salary of more than $240,000 a year. Last week, he requested and was granted a paid leave of absence, so he will not return to work before his retirement date.

In an email to colleagues on Monday, Rothans said he is retiring on Oct. 26 because of long-term health issues "that have recently been exacerbated and need to be addressed."

"My focus in the future will be on my family," he wrote. "I have been privileged to work in this great organization for close to 32 years and will miss all of you."

Rothans has not yet been interviewed by investigators, Swensson said. Until he officially retires, he must answer investigators' questions, but after his retirement, he will be under no obligation to do so. He has waived his right to keep the investigation confidential, allowing it to be monitored by the department's independent inspector general.

One question that may be addressed by the investigation is whether Rothans paid a fair price for the Audi A4.

He bought the car, which he believed to be a 2010 model, for $3,000 last May from Lisa Vernola, who owns Vernola's Towing in Norwalk. The Kelley Blue Book value for a similar car in good condition was more than $17,000.

The car was in fact a 2012 model that had been stolen new from a dealership in Mission Viejo. Rothans and Vernola both said they had no idea the car was stolen.

Rothans told The Times that the car, which had about 24,000 miles on it, needed a new radio and had rear body damage. But he was unable to produce receipts for any repairs.

Vernola said she wanted to get rid of the car and did not give Rothans a special deal.

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Rothans has said he did not believe the purchase was unethical because he bought the car from Vernola, not her tow company. Because she was a friend, he said, he did not ask about the car's history and did not know the car was one step removed from her impound lot, where it had ended up after its driver was arrested by sheriff's deputies in Pico Rivera.

Sheriff's officials are prohibited from purchasing property that has been seized by the department. The prohibition applies both to direct purchases and purchases made through a third party. Employees also are prohibited from personally profiting from their positions.

As one of the department's four assistant sheriffs, Rothans oversaw patrol operations throughout the county, including the Pico Rivera Sheriff's Station, which has used Vernola's Towing as a contractor since 1996. The assistant sheriffs are ranked third in the 18,000-member department, after the sheriff and the chief executive.

From 2006 to 2010, Rothans was in charge of the Pico Rivera station, where his responsibilities included awarding towing contracts. After being promoted to commander and then chief, Rothans continued to oversee Pico Rivera and other sheriff's stations.

The friendship between Rothans and the Vernola family goes back decades. Lisa Vernola's father, Luigi Vernola, is a longtime Norwalk city councilman and supporter of the Sheriff's Department who founded the nonprofit Friends of Norwalk Sheriff's Station.

The Sheriff's Department will soon implement a new policy for awarding towing contracts that is designed to minimize the risk of cozy relationships between station captains and tow companies. The decisions will no longer be a responsibility of the captains and will be made by a panel of three chiefs who do not work in patrol divisions.

"I think the new policy is going to solve a lot of the problems," Swensson said. "It's also a matter of making sure all of our personnel understand the policies and procedures when it comes to dealing with contracted vendors, specifically tow companies."

After the Audi A4 was stolen from Mission Viejo Audi on Dec. 26, 2011, someone replaced the Vehicle Identification Number with a VIN from a different but similar car, according to CHP Lt. Michael Stefanoff, who heads the O.C. Auto Theft Task Force.

Nearly two years after it was stolen, sheriff's deputies stopped the car at a DUI checkpoint in Pico Rivera. The driver, Robert Steven Orozco, was arrested on suspicion of firearms violations, including carrying a loaded firearm in public and possession of a concealed firearm by a gang member, according to a police report reviewed by The Times. The car was impounded at Vernola's Towing.

No one bought the car when Vernola's Towing advertised it in a lien sale, according to Lisa Vernola and Stefanoff. On May 3, 2014, Vernola filed documents with the Department of Motor Vehicles indicating that she was taking ownership of the Audi.

According to Vernola, Rothans spotted the Audi after arriving at the tow yard to have lunch with her father. When Rothans took an interest in the car, Vernola said, she was eager to get it off her hands. She had intended to keep it for herself as a fun second car, but it turned out to have too many mechanical problems.

On May 21, Rothans applied to register the Audi in his name. He drove it in his off-duty hours for more than a year, until he received a notice from the DMV to come in for a VIN verification.

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At the California Highway Patrol's East L.A. station on Sept. 4, an officer discovered that the VIN on the dashboard was fake. Rothans' car was not a 2010 Audi A4 but the 2012 model that had been stolen from the dealership. The car was seized and returned to the dealership.

Rothans was generally well-regarded in the Sheriff's Department, and his troubles took many by surprise.

"I could tell you he was really big on mentoring people and getting the best out of all his employees," said Swensson, who trained under Rothans at the Lakewood Sheriff's Station. "He was very highly respected by everybody that I know. I think his leadership is going to be missed."

Jeffrey Steck, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said Rothans was viewed as "one of the most respected executives in the department — by the deputies and his fellow executives alike."

Had Rothans remained with the department, the rank-and-file would have been watching closely to see whether the sheriff treated him the same way they would be treated.

"Any time attention is drawn to a higher-ranking person, men and women are always looking to see, 'Will the standards be applied equally?'" Steck said. "I never had any question they would be."

Twitter: @cindychangLA

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