Overtime practices that led to suspensions widespread in CHP, attorneys claim
An investigation allegedly found evidence that some CHP officers exaggerated the number of hours they worked in protection details for Caltrans workers doing freeway maintenance.
When top brass at the California Highway Patrol early this year announced the suspension of dozens of officers suspected of fraudulently receiving hundreds of hours of overtime pay, they insisted the practice was isolated to the East Los Angeles station.
An investigation, they said, found evidence that officers at the station exaggerated the number of hours they worked in protection details for Caltrans workers doing freeway maintenance, receiving pay for eight hours of overtime when they may have only put in three or four hours on a detail.
But now attorneys for more than 30 of those officers claim the practice extends far beyond the East L.A. station and has existed for decades. They cite statements from current and former supervisors and officers to back up their case.
Led by former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, the attorneys this week sought a judge’s order to release overtime records for similar details worked in the past by top CHP leaders and investigators to prove their point. The CHP has denied a public records request for those records, citing the ongoing investigation.
The lawsuit filed in Superior Court seeks audits of CHP overtime from 2016 to 2019 and the records of nine specific officers and supervisors from 2007 to 2009.
The overtime records the attorneys are seeking include those of the lieutenant who helped initiate the East L.A. station probe, a captain at the East L.A. station and the public relations sergeant for the Los Angeles region — all of whom worked Caltrans details in previous years.
“The CHP knows this has been a widespread practice in the organization for decades when it comes to Caltrans details and dignitary protection,” Cooley said. “Everyone including the commissioner as officers have participated in details that last only three or four hours of the eight hours assigned.”
At least 14 officers from the East L.A. station are in the process of being terminated, while the conduct of 90 others is still under review. Cooley said as many as 60 officers face termination.
In announcing the investigation in February, CHP Chief Mark Garrett, who oversees the Southern Division, said the agency had provided details of its criminal probe to L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s office. Garrett said the agency examined records at 103 commands across the state and the improper activity was an “aberration” confined to the East L.A. station.
He said there were “ringleaders” inside the station who were behind the scheme, which he said goes back at least two years, but did not elaborate.
Garrett said the agency uncovered at least $360,000 in fake overtime. The East L.A. station allocated about $2.5 million for reimbursable overtime during the two years covered by the investigation, officials said.
The department declined to comment when asked why it won’t release the overtime records of those who are not subjects of the probe and whether the practice of leaving work sites occurred beyond East L.A.
“The department is continuing to investigate this matter and no further comments will be made until the investigation is complete,” said Fran Clader, the agency’s communications director.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division is reviewing whether criminal fraud charges will be filed against the East L.A. officers.
CHP officers can earn lucrative overtime for the Caltrans work crew details. The job typically involves sitting in a cruiser at either end of a construction zone to ensure motorists don’t get too close to the workers.
Scores of Caltrans workers have been killed and hundreds have been injured, most the victims of errant motorists who have plowed into work crews on freeways.
CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley said earlier this year that he was “appalled” at the scope of the alleged misconduct by law enforcement officials and indicated it extended beyond officers to higher-level managers.
In their lawsuit, Cooley and attorney Brentford Ferreira cite a 2012 written policy that officers contracted for eight hours of overtime who are released early from Caltrans duty may receive pay for the entire time as long as they stand by at the office.
In practice, many officers remain on call away from the office, the lawsuit claims.
“Now that cellphones are universally available, officers sometimes went home rather than back to the station, but remain on-call by cellphone,” the motion filed Wednesday stated. In an interview, Cooley said there was an on-call coordinator at the East L.A. station.
In court documents cited by Cooley, retired Sgt. William Preciado said that protocol has been in place for 20 years. Preciado said in his sworn declaration that investigators assigned to probe the current alleged misconduct have participated in the same work schemes.
A former top CHP chief who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation said it was standard practice that officers would often leave a work site if their duties were not needed for a full eight hours. The chief questioned why the East L.A. station was singled out.
In their court filing, Cooley and Ferreira said that several retired CHP officers, including high-level supervisors, are willing to testify that the practice is widespread.
The lawsuit also offers insight into how the East L.A. station probe began, when a supervisor began to question overtime practices and an officer filed a grievance seeking to block changes to workplace procedures.
The officer ultimately was accused of accumulating 30 overtime violations while on Caltrans details and was fired.
The East L.A. station comprises about 115 staff. So many officers were under scrutiny that the CHP was forced to shift extra staffers to the Southern Division, which patrols the Los Angeles area, sources told The Times.
The CHP in the wake of the investigation altered its overtime practices to prevent further abuses while California Department of Transportation launched an audit of the highway funds used.
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