Breaking his forced silence for the first time, former Police Chief John R. Robertson calmly accused city officials Friday of destroying his career to thwart an investigation of a fraud scandal involving the city’s trash and recycling companies.
“There is no doubt in my mind I am being terminated for doing my job,” Robertson said at his attorney’s office in Santa Ana. “It’s very difficult to be put on administrative leave, to be given an order that you can’t talk, that you can’t respond, and to watch yourself get slammed, your character be assassinated.”
Robertson, police chief since 1992, was fired by a 3-2 vote of the City Council on Tuesday. He had been on paid leave since Oct. 15, when he was issued a gag order.
He described the last four months as “hellish” and “devastating” for him, his wife and his three children, who, he said, have been subjected to taunts by classmates.
In October, City Personnel Director Steven V. Pham said the city was investigating allegations that the chief created a hostile workplace in the department.
But it quickly developed that the primary reason he was in trouble was that he had ordered fingerprint checks on City Manager David L. Rudat and City Council members last summer to see if any of them had leaked a sealed search-warrant affidavit to The Times.
The city hired two law firms and spent close to $100,000 to investigate Robertson. He eventually sat before independent hearing officer Edward Kreins, who found evidence of “poor judgment” by Robertson but said termination would be legally difficult to sustain.
Kreins’ report also stated that some of the charges against Robertson were vague and that part of the probe appeared to be a “fishing trip.” Some of Pham’s actions were so questionable, Kreins said, that they might warrant investigation.
City Atty. David A. De Berry said the charges indeed may have lacked some specifics. The firing nonetheless could be defended in court, he added.
Robertson and his attorney, Christopher Miller, who frequently represents law enforcement officers, said that the firing of a police chief is not uncommon when elected officials are facing high-profile scandals in their cities.
In this case, the path that led to Robertson’s demise goes back to April, when the Police Department learned that the trash and recycling companies that have held the exclusive contract with the city since 1955 may have misappropriated millions of dollars of municipal funds.
That police investigation focused on Jeffery Hambarian, the head of Orange Resource Recovery Systems Inc. Hambarian and his attorneys have consistently refused to comment on the investigation to the press.
Hambarian’s prominent parents, Sam and Alyce, who own the city’s trash hauling company, also came under scrutiny, although their attorney has denied any wrongdoing on their part. The case now is being handled by the district attorney.
In August, police began investigating the leak of an affidavit detailing the case. But Robertson said his fall was set in motion long before that.
He recalled assembling an investigative team to look into the allegations and being told that he was risking his career.
“Immediately, I was told by members of that team that it would be career suicide to pursue this investigation, that I would be at great risk for taking on a politically powerful family,” he said. “A member of the district attorney’s office told me that in his experience, cities would, in these types of situations, turn and go after the police chief.”
The charges against Robertson include investigating his bosses when he had a conflict of interest because he could have been the source of the leak, directly disobeying orders of Rudat, his direct superior, and briefing Mayor Pro Tem Dan Slater about the trash investigation when he had been ordered not to.
Miller noted that Robertson could pursue several legal paths to clear his name, the most likely being a wrongful termination suit. But he has yet to receive a final notice of termination from the city describing exactly why he was fired.
Robertson said he eventually would answer all of the charges but was limited in what he could say because the trash case is still being investigated.
He did say he informed Rudat of the investigation of the leak and that he did ask the district attorney to take over the case. But, he said, DA investigators were not sure there was enough of a conflict of interest regarding himself.
“I did not leak that affidavit,” Robertson repeated several times.
He also said he could not reveal all the reasons why he briefed Slater, but that those reasons will come out when the district attorney files charges in the trash case or if, as expected, he files a wrongful termination suit against the city.
The former chief said he had an obligation to brief some official who had no ties to the Hambarians and would not become a suspect in the trash case. Under the chain of command, Slater was that person, he said.
“I have dozens of reasons why I did the investigation,” Robertson said. “There are certain individuals, city officials, who do not want me ever to talk about this trash investigation as a sitting police chief. They want to be able to say, ‘He’s just a disgruntled employee.’ ”