Former Bell police chief accused of quashing an internal investigation

Shortly after taking office last year, former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams quashed an investigation by one of his sergeants into possible corruption involving city officials, charges that became the subject of criminal probes by other agencies, the since-retired officer said.

James Corcoran, who left Bell after a later run-in with Adams and filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the city in July, said Adams became irate after hearing his account of evidence that officials might have engaged in voter fraud, unlawful vehicle seizures and the illegal selling of building permits.

During their August 2009 meeting, Adams grew more upset when Corcoran said he had already shared the information with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and the California secretary of state's office, Corcoran said.

Adams knew Corcoran had worked with the FBI on anti-terrorism cases and instructed him not to go to the federal agency about the alleged corruption in Bell without his permission, according to the former sergeant.

"He told me it makes others uncomfortable to have the FBI in the building," Corcoran said. "He should have offered me investigative assistance. Instead, he shut it down."

At the FBI's request, Corcoran said, he did not tell Adams that a federal agent had interviewed him several times about the vehicle seizures. The FBI declined to comment.

Thomas O'Brien, an attorney for Adams, denied that his client became angry at Corcoran or tried to stop any investigation. He said Adams did not act on Corcoran's allegations because of the former sergeant's statement that he had reported them to other agencies.

"There was no further action for Chief Adams to take," said O'Brien, a former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

Corcoran said he went to Adams in hopes that the chief would step up the probe the sergeant had been working on for several months, especially the investigation into a number of allegations against his own officers. "I considered this a starting point," he said.

Adams was one of three top Bell officials who resigned after The Times reported their unusually high salaries last July. The disclosure triggered an investigation of the administrators' salaries by the district attorney's office and the state attorney general's office. The FBI has been interviewing people about the impound allegations, according to city and federal officials.

Adams has not been charged in the corruption case, which has resulted in the arrests of eight former and current Bell officials. County prosecutors have said he is under investigation for striking a deal with former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo that declared Adams disabled the day he was hired and guaranteed him a lucrative medical retirement.

Corcoran served 19 years with the Bell department, after six as a reserve officer, and supervised four other investigators as sergeant for the detective bureau. Internal district attorney's investigative records reviewed by The Times show that he told that agency of his suspicions about corruption in Bell and his belief that confiding in Adams was a "mistake."

In the spring of 2009, Corcoran said, he and two fellow police officers tried to persuade the district attorney's office to investigate Rizzo and other officials. Corcoran said he took many of his allegations to the FBI and those about voter fraud to the secretary of state's office around that time as well.

After several months, he said, it appeared that none of those efforts had been effective because he and his two colleagues heard nothing more from investigators. So, Corcoran said, he recounted for Adams how Rizzo, who now faces dozens of corruption charges, assigned him in January 2009 to investigate whether another city administrator offered to sell a building permit to a local resident.

Corcoran said he informed Adams that he had found evidence of possible crimes but that Rizzo ordered him to drop the investigation and clear the administrator in his report.

Not true, said James Spertus, Rizzo's attorney. Spertus said Corcoran is "a bitter, retired cop" whose "career was cut short by his own conduct" and thus is biased against Rizzo. He said any allegation by Corcoran should be considered unreliable.

During the same meeting with Adams, Corcoran said, he told the chief that he had informed county and state investigators that he possessed evidence that absentee votes had been cast in city elections in the names of dead people, prison inmates and foreign nationals and that some police officers, in apparent violation of the law, had helped distribute and collect ballots.

In addition, Corcoran said, he briefed Adams on his findings that police officers, at Rizzo's direction, were seizing residents' autos for minor infractions in order to charge them exorbitant impound fees. Bell Police Sgt. Art Jimenez said he also complained to Adams about the impounds. "I went into great detail about that and how I thought it was wrong," Jimenez said.

Corcoran and Jimenez said Adams continued the impound practice and spent a day in the field last January demonstrating how vehicles should be seized. O'Brien said Adams ordered officers to impound autos to enforce the law and not to drum up revenue.

Corcoran said he left Adams' office "knowing I was in trouble just because of what I told him. The right thing for me to do then would have been to write a letter to the FBI about this, but I said, '…It's not worth it.'

"It was one of those Don Quixote things," Corcoran said. "I felt I was fighting windmills."

Bell Police Officer Terry Dixon recalled that Corcoran told him immediately after the meeting that Adams told him to drop the investigation.

"That's unbecoming of a chief," Dixon said. "Any investigation that is ongoing, started up, or if there is anything even alleged, he should let his people do their job. To tell somebody to keep your mouth shut.... Something's wrong."

Beginning last fall, Corcoran alleges in the lawsuit, Adams moved to jettison him from the department.

In November 2009, Adams reassigned him from the detective bureau to street patrol, a lesser position, Corcoran said. Two months later, he said, Adams accused him of insubordination because of a profane remark about a lieutenant, made in front of junior officers.

Corcoran acknowledged that he used an expletive and had uttered disparaging comments about other police administrators and Rizzo, calling him a "crook." But he said that the offenses, although against the rules, did not warrant severe punishment.

He said he decided to retire last April because he believed Adams was about to fire him.

The city has denied the allegations in the lawsuit. O'Brien declined to comment on the insubordination allegation or the suit because they involve personnel issues and are being handled by the city.

Corcoran said he again contacted the district attorney's office last February and March. An investigator looked into his allegations, he said, but became focused on the roughly $100,000 annual salaries paid to Bell's part-time City Council members.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said the investigation expanded dramatically after The Times published the salaries of Rizzo ($787,000 annually), Adams ($457,000) and Asst. City Administrator Angela Spaccia ($376,000).

Along with Rizzo, Spaccia and other current and former Bell officials, Adams has been named in a civil lawsuit brought by the state attorney general's office, which alleges waste of public funds, fraud and conflict of interest.

Legal and pension experts say the disability retirement arrangement that Adams made with Rizzo could amount to an unlawful attempt to misappropriate public funds. Disability pensions are designed for police officers and other safety employees who can no longer work because of their injuries.

If the agreement stands, Adams could receive half of his estimated $400,000-plus annual pension tax-free.

O'Brien said Adams did nothing wrong in the arrangement.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

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