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2 ex-Baldwin Park employees accuse council members of retaliation

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Two former city of Baldwin Park employees claim firings were retaliatory
Former Baldwin Park employees accuse city council members of unethical behavior

Two former Baldwin Park city employees are claiming they were fired in retaliation for opposing unethical behavior by city council members.

In an 11-page claim filed June 2 with the city clerk's office, Vijay Singhal, the city's former chief executive officer, alleged he was forced from his job in retaliation for refusing to provide favors and concessions to friends and family members of Mayor Pro Tem Ricardo Pacheco and council member Susan Rubio, as well as organizations that financially supported them. 

"Mr. Singhal's career with the City was cut short when he was terminated in an unethical and retaliatory manner, absent the proper procedures and in violation of applicable laws," according to the claim.

A separate claim for damages was filed June 18 by Leticia Lara, a former human resources manager, who alleged she was fired in retaliation for voicing opposition to demotions she viewed as discriminatory and for rebuffing advances from current Police Chief Mike Taylor, among other reasons.

"These allegations are made by former disgruntled employees and there is no evidence to substantiate their claims," Pacheco said in an email, referring additional questions to City Attorney Robert Tafoya.

Tafoya called the allegations false and malicious in an email. He said Singhal and Lara "never complained about these alleged acts while they were employed."

"This is a money grab by two disgruntled employees," he added. "These disgruntled employees are making false and malicious allegations in order to garner a large settlement from the City of Baldwin Park. That will never happen; not today, not tomorrow, not ever."  

Rubio could not be reached by phone or email Thursday afternoon. 

Both Singhal and Lara's claims were rejected at a city council meeting Wednesday. The claims are considered precursors to lawsuits. Rubio, Pacheco and Councilman Cruz Baca voted against the claims. Mayor Manuel Lozano and Councilwoman Monica Garcia abstained.

In his claim for damages, Singhal detailed more than 20 examples in which he experienced strong rebuke and frustration from Pacheco and Rubio because he refused to sign-off on requests that he said violated state and local laws. Among the requests Singhal said he refused:

  • Granting $5 million to $6 million in pay raises for the Police Officers Association, which he described as a “heavy financial funder” to Pacheco's and Rubio's political campaigns. Pacheco and Rubio previously aligned themselves with the POA when it protested a proposal to have the L.A. County Sheriff's Department patrol Baldwin Park, according to the claim.
  • Approving two or three purchases by Pacheco on the city’s credit card for personal expenses. Pacheco “balked” at reimbursing the city for his personal charges, according to the claim.
  • Hiring engineering firms associated with a friend of Pacheco's for city projects instead of following the bid process.

The contentious relationship between the two council members and Singhal came to a head Dec. 9, 2013, when Taylor, who was a captain at the time, was placed on administrative leave with approval from Singhal, pending an investigation into wrongdoing.

The following day, Singhal was terminated "without cause" during a closed session of a special meeting. A police officer escorted Singhal from city hall "as though he was a criminal," the claim stated. The claim describes Taylor as a "close friend" of Pacheco.

After Singhal's termination, the council assigned Taylor to the joint appointment of Chief of Police and acting chief executive.

"Mr. Taylor has no experience in being the CEO, whether permanent or acting, he was on leave pending investigation when he was improperly appointed as CEO," the claim stated.

Changes to the city council's structure were possible because Rubio and Pacheco secured a majority when Baca was elected to fill a seat left vacant in the November election, according to the claim.

Taylor could not be reached for comment Thursday. Officials at the Baldwin Park Police Department also declined to comment.

Taylor is also at the center of another claim filed by Lara, the former human resources manager for the city. After Taylor's promotion, Lara's "work environment changed drastically." 

Lara said she believes she was fired because she complained about what she felt were the discriminatory firings of two Latino employees. Lara also expressed concern that overpayments were being made to city council members, according to the claim.

She also complained about Taylor making sexual comments in the office, "such as loudly asking about a young female intern, 'Who is THAT?' and also commenting in a meeting that the City had been caught with its 'chonees' (Spanish for panties) down." 

The comments reminded Lara of sexually inappropriate comments Taylor allegedly made in 2006 and 2007 after she was initially hired, according to the claim. The city council fired Lara on Jan. 29, 2014, a day after she was placed on stress-induced temporary disability, said her attorney, Dan Stormer.

“This type of conduct is so common in these smaller towns,” Stormer said. “Ms. Lara is a career public official who believes strongly that with the job comes obligations of honesty and integrity.” 

For breaking news in Los Angeles and the Southland, follow @debbietruong or email her at debbie.truong@latimes.com 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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