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Sheriff’s Dept. Fined $15,000 for Contempt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been found in contempt of court and ordered to pay a $15,000 fine for refusing to follow court orders and reinstate a helicopter pilot who was fired two years ago after getting into a fight with another deputy.

Citing “willful disobedience” on the part of the department, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne imposed the fine this week at the request of Deputy Francisco Benach, a 20-year department employee who was terminated from his job in April 1994 but then ordered reinstated by the Civil Service Commission and, finally, the court.

“The challenges to both the commission’s order of reinstatement and many of this court’s orders went way beyond aggressive lawyering,” Wayne wrote. “The actions of the [Sheriff’s Department] were clearly done for an improper purpose, i.e. for harassing the . . . [deputy] and avoiding the orders of the court.”

Department officials declined comment. “This is an ongoing piece of litigation,” said Cecil Marr, a deputy county counsel representing the department.

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Attorneys for Benach said the incident illustrates an “arrogance” on the part of the Sheriff’s Department.

“I’ve seen an attitude in the Sheriff’s Department where they have a shaky case and they say, ‘We’ll go ahead and fire you and you can fight for your job back,’ ” said attorney Elizabeth J. Gibbons, who represents Benach. “With this guy, they went so far beyond that.”

The incident that led to Benach being fired occurred on Feb. 10, 1993 in West Covina, where Benach and another deputy had landed their helicopter to arrest two fleeing bank robbery suspects. The deputies apparently got into a dispute over tactics used in the arrest, according to Richard Shinee, another attorney representing Benach.

The next day, the chief in charge of the helicopter unit recommended that Benach be fired--relying on the other deputy’s testimony that Benach had become irate and grabbed him by the neck. He allegedly yelled: “I’m going to choke you. . . . I’m going to kill you.”

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But the hearing officer who investigated the matter for the Civil Service Commission questioned the credibility of the second deputy and deemed the fight a mutual combat. “Once the fight began, each combatant did what he believed necessary to defend himself,” the officer wrote in a report presented to the commission in March 1995.

In December 1995, the Civil Service Commission ordered that Benach be reinstated, with a 10-day suspension. The department challenged the order in court.

Finally, last May, Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien ordered that Benach be reinstated. The department again refused, this time requiring that he undergo psychological testing first.

After several court hearings, Wayne issued a contempt order in September 1996 for the refusal to obey O’Brien’s order and levied a $1,000 fine.

At first, Benach was hired back to answer phones. Then, after yet another order from Wayne, the department reinstated Benach as a helicopter pilot.

“It took about year and a month after the commission ordered him to go back to work that they allowed him to fly again,” Gibbons said.

At the request of Gibbons and Shinee, Wayne reviewed the department’s actions and decided Wednesday that a larger fine was in order.

“The sum of $15,000 should be a deterrent to such unacceptable conduct in the future,” the judge wrote.

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