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District Attorney’s Inquiry Clears Claremont Police Chief

Times Staff Writer

Police Chief Dexter Atkinson will not be criminally charged for allowing a three-time convicted drunk driver to do remodeling work at the Claremont police station in lieu of serving a mandatory jail sentence, the district attorney’s office announced Wednesday.

Atkinson has been on paid administrative leave since early August, when City Manager Glenn Southard asked the district attorney to investigate allegations that the police chief may have obstructed justice by permitting John Donald Barber to evade jail time.

At the time he called for a district attorney’s investigation, Southard also ordered an internal city investigation of Atkinson’s administrative performance, which was not affected by Wednesday’s announcement. Until that inquiry is completed, Atkinson will remain on leave.

Instead of serving 120 days in jail--a mandatory sentence for someone convicted of drunk driving three times in 7 years--Barber, a licensed general contractor, worked fewer than 96 days consulting on police station renovations. He said he worked 8 to 10 hours a day and was free to go home at night. Atkinson later wrote a letter to the court attesting that Barber had completed a work program.

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That letter was the focus of the investigation into possible criminal conduct by Atkinson, said Deputy District Atty. Lawrence Mason. The police chief was suspected of violating Section 134 of the Penal Code, which prohibits the preparation of false documentary evidence, Mason said.

Publicity surrounding the allegations led court officials to order a hearing for Barber to determine whether he may have violated his probation by failing to serve the jail sentence.

Work Option Permitted

But on Oct. 21, Pomona Municipal Court Judge Jack P. Hunt found that Barber had not violated his sentencing. Hunt said the Penal Code permits custodial agencies the option of putting prisoners to work instead of locking them up.

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Because of the law’s provisions for work-time credit, the contractor’s work more than satisfied his sentence, Hunt said.

Mason, who had investigated Atkinson and prosecuted Barber in last month’s hearing, said the judge’s ruling largely removed the basis for criminal charges against the police chief.

“Implicit in that finding is that the letter written by the chief was not written falsely or with any fraudulent intent,” Mason said.

Atkinson has not been available for comment since the investigation began. The police chief’s lawyer, Henry Fenton, expressed relief over the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but I’m happy,” Fenton said. “Anytime you have something like this that has no basis hanging overhead, it’s a relief when the pressure’s off. I believe this was the correct thing to do. I only regret that it didn’t happen sooner.”

A spokesman for a group of residents that has rallied to the police chief’s defense echoed Fenton’s response and said his group will continue its pressure on city officials to reinstate Atkinson.

“This is what we were expecting all along,” spokesman George Crites said. “We’ve known all along that Dex’s integrity was above reproach. I think the next step is up to the city.”

Southard said Wednesday that he has scheduled a meeting with the chief Nov. 18 and plans to release the findings of his investigation after Thanksgiving. He stressed that the district attorney’s decision not to proceed against Atkinson has no bearing on any action the city might take.

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“I would just note that criminal standards (of misconduct) are different than administrative standards,” Southard said. “What Mr. Barber did in the eyes of the court and what Mr. Atkinson did in the eyes of the city are two different things. The Barber issue is simply one part of a larger investigation regarding the police chief.”

However, Atkinson’s attorney questioned the city’s motives in continuing the investigation and said the police chief deserves to get his job back immediately.

“I don’t think there’s any basis for any continued leave of absence,” Fenton said. “I think the matters they claim to be under investigation are matters the city’s known about for some time. This should all have been concluded. It just looks as though they’re looking, searching, fishing for something to pin on the chief.”


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