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Suit Aims to Keep Prison Probe Records From Union

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer sued Monday to block the California prison guards union from obtaining internal affairs documents, saying the state’s ability to investigate wrongdoing by employees behind prison walls could be undermined.

Lockyer filed the suit after an arbitrator sided with the union in a dispute over a provision in the prison officers’ labor contract with the state. The arbitrator concluded that the contract required internal affairs investigators -- and, by extension, the state Department of Justice -- to turn the material over to the union and to the subjects of investigations.

The provision has been part of the contract for 15 years, but was expanded during Gov. Gray Davis’ tenure.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. long has been among the most influential political forces in the state. But Lockyer’s suit comes as the organization is on the defensive, fending off legislative oversight hearings and efforts by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to force guards to take a pay cut to help the state close its budget gap.

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The internal affairs issue arose when the Department of Corrections ordered that internal affairs investigators divulge information to the union representing correctional officers suspected of roughing up inmates at Chino state prison two years ago. The internal affairs officers refused, and called in state Justice Department investigators to take over the case.

After a lengthy closed-door proceeding, arbitrator Joseph Freitas Jr., a former San Francisco district attorney, ordered that the state turn over at least some details of the investigation.

Freitas ordered that the state divulge the “name of complainant, name of the employee complained of, gist of incident or behavior complained of that could reasonably result in noncriminal discipline against the employee(s), and time and location of incident and behavior.”

His ruling is dated April 8. The decision became public Monday, when Lockyer filed his challenge in Sacramento Superior Court.

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The justice department says in its suit that if the arbitrator’s ruling is allowed to stand, current and future investigations could be stymied. Unless the court intervenes, the suit says, the Department of Personnel Administration and Department of Corrections will be forced to divulge records they possess related to the investigation.

“The release of such evidence and/or information will cause irreparable harm to the Department of Justice in that its independent criminal investigation process will be compromised,” the suit says.

The suit adds that the “release of such information would jeopardize the ability of the Department of Justice to fully and fairly investigate allegations of criminal conduct involving correctional peace officers.”

Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said the union had no desire to protect wrongdoing, but was obligated to ensure that internal affairs investigators treat correctional officers fairly.

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“Some people don’t understand that these inmates might have reason to make false allegations against correctional officers to manipulate their lives. Imagine that,” Corcoran said.

Lockyer did not respond to phone calls Monday evening.

J.P. Tremblay, assistant director for communications of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, said that if Lockyer’s suit “will help move a criminal investigation forward, he is doing the right thing. We want to make sure that nothing we do will impede a criminal investigation.”

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who has been leading a legislative oversight effort on the prison system with Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), praised Lockyer’s move, saying, “It goes to a fundamental principle -- whether a contract is going to trump criminal law.”

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The case began when Supervising Special Agent Steve Mihalyi, a Department of Corrections internal affairs investigator, refused to divulge details about the probe to the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

In testimony in legislative hearings last year, Mihalyi alleged that the union had pressured top department officials to demand that he turn over investigation files. He refused, contending that it would have endangered witnesses and damaged the inquiry. Rather than comply with his boss’ commands, he sought help from a state Department of Justice attorney, who agreed to take custody of the files.

“I felt the integrity of the investigation was at stake,” Mihalyi told legislators, explaining why he refused to turn over the material. “I felt the integrity of internal affairs was at stake.”


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