D.A. Investigated Torrance's Police Chief : Probe: Donald E. Nash's purchase of a car seized in a drug raid spurred inquiry. No charges will be filed, but the city disciplined Nash, then accepted his retirement.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sometime before Torrance Police Chief Donald E. Nash announced last month that he planned to retire, Los Angeles district attorney's officials told the city that they were investigating Nash's purchase of a luxury car seized during a drug raid.

After conducting his own inquiry, City Manager LeRoy J. Jackson found Nash had used "poor judgment" and disciplined him for "inappropriate" actions, Jackson said in an interview Friday.

Shortly after Jackson's investigation, the City Council accepted Nash's plan to resign in February, 1992, and boosted his final year's salary and benefits to $133,000, which raised his annual pension almost $11,000.

On Friday, the investigation became public when the district attorney's office decided it would not file criminal charges against Nash. The investigation, which began when an informant told the district attorney's office that Nash had had improper contacts with drug dealers, ultimately found only that Nash had underpaid sales tax when he registered the 1987 Jaguar XJ6.

To convict Nash of that offense, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Greg Thompson said prosecutors would have had to prove that Nash intentionally submitted the wrong amount. "It simply wasn't that clear," Thompson said.

Although a source close to the investigation said it was the city that forced Nash, 66, to retire because of the allegations of wrongdoing, the only City Council member who would talk about that aspect of the case said pressure to get Nash out came from the district attorney's office. Because of Nash's age, city officials had said at the time that his resignation was not unexpected.

"The district attorney's office basically threatened our police chief and said he had to resign or they were going to continue the investigation," said Councilman Timothy Mock, adding that the council let Nash decide whether to retire. "It was his decision. We did not force him out," he said.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office denied that her office pressured Nash to resign.

Nash could not be reached for comment. His wife, Rita, who spoke with a reporter Friday outside her home in Rancho Palos Verdes, declined to comment but took a message for him.

The controversy stems from Nash's July, 1988, purchase of the teal blue 1987 Jaguar two months after the car was seized in a major cocaine bust in Torrance and Palos Verdes Estates.

The car, which had been driven by Colombian drug dealer Jose Luis Bantula during negotiations for a 621-pound cocaine sale, was sitting in the city's impound lot when Nash first saw it, investigators said.

Although police officials briefly considered selling the car under federal narcotics forfeiture laws, they waived that right and released the Jaguar to its co-owner, Bantula's brother, Anthony.

Records show that Nash bought the car when it was a year old for $25,500 from Anthony Bantula, who was not a suspect in the drug case. He gave the car to his wife, Rita, and the couple later put the personalized license plate RITZJAG on it.

The list price for that model when new was $37,700, according to the Kelley Blue Book Auto Market Reports. Its value in 1988 was not available, but a similar car would sell today for between $18,500 and $23,800, according to the Blue Book.

The district attorney's office began looking into the transaction in November after an informant complained that Nash had had improper contacts with drug dealers, including a different case in which he allegedly undermined a narcotics investigation, said a source close to the investigation.

Investigators declined to provide details on that case, saying they quickly concluded Nash had done nothing criminal. They continued looking into the Jaguar purchase, however, having discovered Nash had underpaid the sales tax because he listed the purchase price as $17,449.37 when he registered the car.

Nash explained to officials that he paid for the car with two separate checks--one for $17,449.37 to cover the outstanding loan on the car and another for $8,050.63 to the seller for the balance of the $25,500 price--and had inadvertently reported only one of the checks, the district attorney's office said.

After Nash was questioned about the error in December, he sent the Department of Motor Vehicles a check for $748.84, which included the $523.29 in tax owed, a 10% penalty and interest of $173.22, the district attorney's office said.

Nash sold the car to Whittlesey Jaguar in Torrance on New Year's Eve, DMV records show. No price was shown.

Deputy district attorneys said they were not surprised that the Police Department failed to confiscate the car under forfeiture proceedings.

Roger Gunson, head of the district attorney's Special Investigations Division, said police agencies must pay off any liens on assets taken by drug forfeiture. Because the Bantulas owed about $17,500 on the car and because police would have had to split sale proceeds with Anthony Bantula, who was not a suspect in the drug case, police concluded it was not worth the trouble, Gunson said. Jose Bantula was sentenced in May in U.S. District Court to 20 years in prison in the narcotics case.

City Council members, Jackson, City Atty. Kenneth L. Nelson and Assistant City Manager Albert Ng were very reluctant to discuss the investigation or the disciplining of Nash. Jackson declined to provide a specific chronology of when the city conducted its own inquiry, when Nash was disciplined or when they learned of the district attorney's investigation.

City officials cited the Police Officers Bill of Rights, which, they said, prevented them from discussing personnel matters regarding the chief.

Mock, however, sharply criticized the tactics of the district attorney's office, saying that he was given the impression that the office had a file on Nash--"and that when he resigned, they would close the file." The office also wanted the city to choose a new chief from outside the Torrance Police Department, Mock said.

"It's very hard to combat allegations in a hidden file. . . . That's Joe McCarthy tactics," he said.

Mayor Katy Geissert would not talk about the district attorney's role in Nash's resignation. "The discussions were in executive session," she said.

Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said Saturday that it is "absolutely untrue" that her office pressured Nash to resign. Nor did it attempt to influence the choice of his successor, Gibbons said. "That would be interfering with city politics--that's none of our business," she said. The district attorney's office first informed the city of the investigation on Nov. 28, Gunson said.

At one point, Jackson and Nelson met with the district attorney's staff, Nelson said. And Mock said Ng had a separate meeting with officials from the district attorney's office, apparently early this year.

Several council members defended Nash's record as chief, but said he did not exercise good judgment in buying the Jaguar.

"I'm upset that he put himself in that position. . . .," Councilwoman Dee Hardison said. "He's brought embarrassment, not only to himself and his police officers, but to the city as a whole."

Geissert said, "I would agree that poor judgment was used in this case, but I would also have to mention the man had a very long and very sound professional career."

She and others defended the council's unanimous decision to award Nash a 15% pay increase, which boosted his annual pension to $99,870.

Several council members explained their vote by pointing to Nash's 21-year tenure as police chief--the longest in the department's history.

Geissert at the time compared Nash's raise to that given to longtime City Atty. Stanley Remelmeyer before he retired. In that case, the council voted in November, 1987, to raise Remelmeyer's annual salary from $102,048 to $137,000.

"I think that the pay raise and the incident of the car are two separate things that don't have anything to do with each other," Councilman Mark Wirth said.

Police Capt. Bruce Randall said Nash notified his deputy chief and four captains in a meeting Feb. 28 that the district attorney's office was conducting an investigation.

David Nemeth, president of the Torrance Police Officers Assn., said he was surprised to learn of the district attorney's investigation.

"Sure, I've heard a few rumors, but we have rumors flying around all the time," Nemeth said. "He's been a great chief. . . . I feel sorry for him, that at this time when he's getting ready to retire after 40 good years, that he would go on such a negative note."

Nemeth said he does not believe Nash retired because of the investigation.

"He's been talking about retiring for at least three or four years that I remember," he said.

Times Staff Writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.

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