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Police Chief Battles for His Career : Newport Beach: Arb Campbell has lived the good life. But now, accusations of rape and a no-confidence vote by officers have him fighting to clear his name.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

He’s driven a silver Mercedes seized in a drug bust and lives in a harbor view home, with neighbors such as sporting goods heir Willard S. Voit and Orange County scion Henry Segerstrom, owner of South Coast Plaza.

He lunches at the sumptuous Ritz restaurant and frequents the private Balboa Bay Club, a longtime social landmark for some of Southern California’s most prominent individuals.

For almost seven years, Arb Campbell, son of a Virginia coal miner, has lived the good life as Newport Beach police chief, making more than $100,000 a year. But now, Campbell, 53, faces the battle of his otherwise quiet career.

One of his police dispatchers has accused him and Capt. Anthony J. Villa Jr. of raping her 11 years ago at a drunken Police Department party. Four other current and former female employees have accused him in a lawsuit of condoning sexual harassment of them by Villa, Campbell’s friend and longtime partner in a real estate deal.

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And in an unprecedented move nearly two weeks ago, Campbell’s officers issued an overwhelming vote of no confidence in him.

A former Los Angeles police officer who spent 20 years rising through the Newport ranks, Campbell is known in police circles as a golf lover and hard partier, especially before taking the helm of his 250-member department.

Appointed in 1986 to reform a police force with a reputation for excessive force and plagued by civil rights lawsuits, Campbell has been praised for improving the department and for solving widespread complaints about summer traffic and beach parties.

But the recent controversies threaten to hasten Campbell’s retirement, a move he announced last month and rescinded two days later. At the time, he said through a spokesman that he was “not going to sit back and let these allegations run wild.”

Campbell declined to be interviewed for this story. But his lawyer, Bruce Praet, said Campbell is frustrated with the case.

“All the allegations have been presumed true without any consideration to his denials,” Praet said. “He’s very disappointed in the fact that he’s dedicated what, 27 years, to the citizens of Newport Beach, six years as their police chief. And with 15 minutes notice, he’s effectively removed from office based on essentially 11-year-old frivolous allegations.”

Campbell’s problems began Sept. 24, when four women sued the city of Newport Beach, Campbell and Villa, charging that the department had become “a hotbed of sexually offensive conduct at the top levels of the command structure.”

On Oct. 15, police dispatcher Peri Ropke announced at a news conference that she was joining the lawsuit, accusing Campbell and Villa of raping her in 1981.

Through Praet, Campbell and Villa have denounced the charges as groundless.

Since the lawsuit was filed, employees of the department have told The Times that they had concerns about Campbell. Men and women alike said that sexual harassment exists and has for years. And they talked of problems broader in scope than just the sexual discrimination charges.

“I was a part . . . of the ‘in crowd’ of Villa and Campbell. . . . I can tell you that, for sure, the sexual harassment went on with Villa,” said one former employee who asked that his name not be used. “It was a casual thing. He’d bump me on the arm (and say): ‘Watch this, watch what I’m going to do’ . . . (then) go hook an arm over their shoulder, caress their breast with his fingers, like it was an accident.”

Other officers questioned Campbell’s judgment in driving a 1985 Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL seized in a local drug arrest. State asset seizure laws, under which the car was obtained, say such vehicles must be used for law enforcement purposes.

Further rankling current and former department employees is the chief’s friendship with wealthy political financier Voit. Numerous sources said Campbell and his wife, Lavonne, are longtime friends with Voit, and their rapport has given some an impression of cronyism and catering to the elite in this upscale community of 70,000.

Some officers have grumbled privately about what they thought was a great deal on a home Campbell bought from Voit before assigning all department travel to Voit’s Seven Seas travel agency in June, 1990. The department has spent $15,000 to $17,000 with Seven Seas in each fiscal year since.

Lavonne Campbell, a detective, took a $2,500 Voit-paid trip to Hong Kong; Campbell did not accompany her. The Campbells also bought a car from Voit.

Some department employees and former staffers say Voit has received priority treatment for police calls, and that if officers did not respond quickly enough, they would hear through supervisors that the chief was upset.

In response to concerns about the purchase of the home, Campbell has “indicated that, quite frankly, it’s no one’s business,” Praet said, adding that the chief says he paid market value for the property.

Through a spokeswoman, Voit declined to be interviewed.

At the request of former City Manager Robert Wynn, City Atty. Robert Burnham reviewed Campbell’s purchase of Voit’s home in 1987 and found there was no conflict of interest.

But while Charles (Pete) Gross was police chief, he banned Voit from seeing the Campbells at the station because he believed that the frequent visits left the wrong impression with the public and other officers.

When Campbell took the department reins in 1986, keeping the peace in Newport Beach had been an issue for more than a year. Under Gross’ eight-year tenure, more than 100 lawsuits and claims had been filed, alleging excessive force, false arrest, harassment and civil rights violations.

The City Council had asked the National League of Cities to audit the Police Department and make recommendations. After the audit was finished in January, 1986, Gross stepped down.

His successor was Campbell, who moved quickly to adopt the League of Cities recommendations, including better officer training and an internal affairs division to investigate allegations of misconduct. Police records show that citizen complaints, claims and lawsuits have steadily declined.

“He came to grips with the problems and is an outstanding manager,” said Newport Beach Councilman John C. Cox Jr. “Over the years he was well-liked in the community. . . . We got the changes we wanted out of Campbell. He was not just throwing Band-Aids at problems.”

Voit and about 30 other prominent business people and law enforcement supporters in the 10-4 Club say they are considering ways to help Campbell get reinstated. He is currently on paid leave.

Some current and former area police chiefs point out that there is a fine line between satisfying the demands of a well-off community and appearing to provide special favors to them.

“I’m just feeling a little empathy for a fellow chief,” said Fullerton Police Chief Philip A. Goehring. “I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but I think I’m going to use the presumption of innocence standard.”


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