Judge dismisses felony charges against 48 CHP officers in East L.A. overtime scheme
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has dismissed felony fraud and wage theft charges against 48 California Highway Patrol officers who had been accused of an overtime fraud scheme at the East L.A. station, the state attorney general’s office said Thursday.
The judge’s actions bring an end to the vast majority of the 54 cases California Atty. Gen Rob Bonta announced in February against former and current CHP officers.
Under the deal, the officers agreed to participate in a misdemeanor diversion program and satisfied conditions including paying restitution. None of the officers, who had argued they were following long-standing practices in the agency, admitted guilt.
The charges came three years after the CHP relieved of duty dozens of officers working in the East L.A. station after investigators gathered evidence that they had exaggerated the number of hours they worked on protection details for Caltrans workers doing freeway repairs. So many officers were removed that the agency had to restaff much of the station.
Judge Ronald S. Coen made the diversion offer to all 54 current and former officers last month over the objection of prosecutors, according to the attorney general’s office.
He offered to reduce all the felonies and allow the officers to enter a misdemeanor diversion program that would require them to pay full restitution of the money that the state alleges they received illegally. According to the attorney general’s office, 50 of 54 agreed and had various dates of compliance.
Sergio Perez, hired as the DWP’s first internal watchdog, is stepping down after only seven months to join the city controller’s office.
Two of the four officers who did not initially take the diversion deal later agreed to it, and one of them has completed the program and paid restitution. The other officer remains on diversion, with a progress report set on the court’s calendar for June 5.
On Thursday, Coen officially dismissed nine of the officers’ cases, bringing the total number of defendants whose cases have been dismissed under diversion to 48, according to the attorney general’s Office.
Only two of the 54 cases are moving forward to a preliminary hearing, with dates to be set in February.
At one time, the 54 officers faced a combined 302 counts, including charges of grand theft and the presentation of a fraudulent claim. The total amount of the fraudulent overtime hours was $226,556. As of early this year, only 11 of the officers were still employed by the CHP and had been placed on administrative leave.
The cases stemmed from a CHP investigation launched in May 2018 into overtime fraud alleged to have occurred between Jan. 1, 2016, and March 31, 2018.
The director of Caltrans has ordered a state audit of expenditures tied to the protection of the agency’s work crews by California Highway Patrol units after a CHP investigation uncovered evidence of fraudulent overtime among its officers.
Officers were accused of padding their overtime hours when assigned to provide protection detail for the California Department of Transportation, for which they were paid through the Maintenance Zone Enhanced Enforcement Program or the Construction Zone Enhanced Enforcement Program. Both are designed to protect workers maintaining freeways. Scores of Caltrans workers have been killed and hundreds injured over the years, primarily victims of errant motorists who have plowed into work crews on freeways.
According to Bonta, an officer would record and receive pay for eight hours of overtime rather than the three to four hours actually worked at a detail. The job typically involves sitting in a cruiser at the end of a construction zone to ensure motorists don’t get too close.
In addition to the main scheme alleged, three of the former officers were accused of recording fake hours for patrolling carpool lanes. According to Bonta’s allegations, the officers made up fake warnings and reports of assistance to drivers to support their overtime claims.
Former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who represents many of the officers in civil proceedings, has repeatedly said they are innocent.
“Bonta does not know what he is doing when it comes to these cases. He is being poorly represented by deputy attorney generals assigned to the case,” Cooley said. “He will discover sooner or later [that] the California Highway Patrol’s conduct is unacceptable, they are selectively prosecuting and terminating from one station all because of a legitimate labor grievance, and that this is retaliation of biblical proportions.”
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