Sheriff Brad Gates insisted Wednesday that he did not push a multimillion-dollar settlement for the family of a slain deputy, but notes taken by the county's top official at a key meeting said Gates took part and "disagreed" with a county attorney's recommendation not to settle.
Gates said he attended only that one meeting, and that he was there merely to present the facts of the case.
"I was not a part of this process in any manner, shape or form," Gates said during a 90-minute interview in his Santa Ana office. "I've never participated in this thing."
The personal notes of Tom Uram, who was the county's acting chief administrator at the time, said that Gates and one of his former top assistants were present at a strategy session called in advance of a settlement conference with attorneys for the survivors of Darryn Leroy Robins--the deputy fatally shot by a fellow officer during an impromptu training exercise on Christmas Day 1992.
Present at the meeting were Uram, Gates, Risk Manager Thomas Beckett, Walt Fath, a retired Sheriff's Department official who worked at the Hall of Administration after Gates was given a bigger role in county operations, and an unidentified county attorney.
Gates said he told the assembled officials that there were "clearly violations of our department rules in this incident." But the sheriff recalled saying that he should not offer an opinion on whether to settle the claim.
"I said, 'I don't want to be a part of this. . . . I shouldn't be here, I shouldn't be involved,' " Gates recalled.
Notes of that Feb. 8 meeting obtained by The Times, however, stated that Gates disagreed with the advice of a county attorney who recommended that the county refuse to settle the case and let the family take the issue to court.
"The attorney's advice was not to do anything and let them sue. He thought it looks like a workers' comp case," according to Uram's notes, which were committed to paper after the meeting. Treating the accidental death as a workers' compensation matter would cost the county significantly less money.
"The sheriff disagreed," Uram stated in his notes. "It's a tough one to decide. I agree with the sheriff."
Uram, the director of the county's Health Care Agency, said Wednesday that after listening to Gates' comments at the meeting, he was "inclined" to agree with the position Gates had taken. Uram, however, declined to elaborate further on Gates' involvement in the matter.
Confronted with the notes, Gates said he did not believe that Uram's recollection conflicted with his version of events.
Beckett, who was also at the meeting, declined earlier this week to discuss Gates' involvement.
Several county sources have said that Gates actively pushed for a settlement with the Robins family because he wanted to compensate Robins' widow, daughter and mother for the loss of a loved one, and he also wanted to avoid a court battle. In August 1994, Robins' widow, Rosemary, filed a claim with the county seeking $15 million on behalf of herself and her daughter, Melissa. Robins' mother, Mildred Fisher, filed a similar claim.
One source said Gates even tried to get the county to help the deputy's widow get a house as part of the settlement. Gates acknowledged that he told the widow that the family might be eligible for a special housing grant, but said the idea came from then-Finance Director Eileen Walsh.
Walsh, however, sharply disputes that. "Buying her a house was not my idea." She said "my staff worked with Lt. Richard Paddock of the Sheriff's Department at the time to complete an application for [a subsidized home loan] for Mrs. Robins," but it never came to pass.
Walsh said that "at the time I left the CAO's office, the county attorney was not recommending a settlement, and believed it was a workers' comp case. In my recollection, both Mrs. Robins and her daughter are currently collecting the maximum available under workers' comp, and have received a grant in the neighborhood of $70,000 from the Justice Department for an officer-related death on duty."
"The idea to settle with Mrs. Robins was the sheriff's idea. From early on, the sheriff wanted to settle with the family, and I concurred we should do the right thing. The problem was, no claim or lawsuit had been filed, and the county's attorney did not believe the county had liability beyond workers' compensation," Walsh said.
In a prepared statement that he issued earlier in the day, Gates said "it has always been my belief that the Robins family deserved to be treated fairly and equitably for the loss of a husband, father and son."
The eventual settlement structured by the county would pay the Robinses nearly $5 million over their lifetimes. Under its terms, the county would give Rosemary Robins $1.1 million in cash up front, and purchase an annuity guaranteeing payments--initially set at almost $5,000 a month--for the next 20 years. The monthly payments are reduced after 10 years, but the settlement provides another $200,000 for the college expenses of the 3-year-old daughter, and a one-time payment of $100,000 when she reaches age 25.
County officials said the settlement, which still needs the approval of U.S. Bankruptcy Court and a county settlement committee, will actually cost the county less than $2 million, since an annuity making the future payments would cost only $800,000.
On Wednesday, Gates said was outraged by suggestions that he played a key role in the settlement offer, blaming unnamed county sources quoted by The Times for trying to create a false impression.
Gates, who had refused to return reporters' calls about the proposed settlement for two days, said he did not know the details of the deal until it was reported by The Times on Tuesday. He said he wanted to thoroughly research the agreement before addressing questions about his involvement.
Gates characterized his role as that of a concerned sheriff looking after the welfare of a fallen deputy's family.
"I would do the same for any employee's family," he said in his release. "My job is to see that they are treated fairly and help guide them through the complex and often confrontational maze of bureaucracy associated with a wrongful death incident."
But some legal experts said the Robins shooting should have been handled as a workers' compensation matter, and not viewed as a wrongful death case. In that case, the family would have received far less money--a maximum of $115,000 according to a workers' compensation attorney.
Even a county attorney, who was not present during the meeting with Gates, Uram and the others, said he questioned why the Robins claim was not treated as a workers' compensation case. That attorney requested anonymity.
Gates, however, said the county should strive to do "the right thing," not the most affordable one.
"Sparing this family, who has suffered so much, the additional agony of enduring a protracted civil court trial is the right thing to do," Gates said.
Gates also said that those who say the county should let the matter be taken to court don't know all the details of the shooting.
Robins was killed by his partner, Brian P. Scanlan, during a training drill behind a Lake Forest theater. They had heard how an officer with another department had been endangered during a traffic stop, and decided to practice approaching dangerous suspects.
In the impromptu training session, Robins played the role of a possibly dangerous suspect, and Scanlan that of the officer who stops him. According to official accounts, Robins startled Scanlan by pulling a concealed weapon from behind his sun visor, and Scanlan, who was improperly using a loaded weapon during the exercise, shot his fellow deputy accidentally.
The shooting triggered accusations of gross misconduct, and suspicions that race could have been a factor, because Scanlan is white and Robins was black. The Orange County Grand Jury and federal prosecutors, however, found that no prosecutable crime was committed.
The district attorney's office concluded after its investigation that Scanlan had been "grossly negligent" for using a loaded pistol in a training exercise, and thought he should be charged with involuntary manslaughter. But in an unusual twist, prosecutors left the final decision to the grand jury, which declined to indict Scanlan.
The victim's family and community leaders successfully pushed Justice Department officials to look into the case. Those officials, however, also concluded that there was no violation of federal laws.
Gates said Wednesday that his department was unable to complete an internal affairs investigation because they were prevented from interviewing Scanlan. He said the investigation is closed, but incomplete.