As he campaigns to become the city's next controller, Councilman Dennis Zine said his first job in office would be to audit the Los Angeles Police Department's risk management division to find out why so many officers are involved in lawsuits.
The city has spent as much as $50 million on legal settlements in recent years on cases it could have avoided if commanders did a better job supervising officers, says Zine, a former LAPD motorcycle officer who faces lawyer Ron Galperin in a May 21 runoff election.
What Zine doesn't mention is a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a female officer claiming that as a police sergeant he made inappropriate sexual advances during a 1997 business trip to Canada. Zine said that the two were dating and that the officer made up or exaggerated her claims.
An internal LAPD investigation cleared Zine of the allegations. But the three-member LAPD disciplinary board that reviewed the case had harsh words for his conduct, saying their decision was "hardly a vindication of Sgt. Zine's actions, for many of his decisions reflect unbelievably poor judgment."
Denise Ward, the former LAPD officer who made the accusations, also filed a civil lawsuit, drawing Zine and the city into litigation that cost the taxpayers $60,000 to defend, court records show. The city eventually was dismissed from the suit, and Zine reached an undisclosed settlement with Ward, who left the force.
Ward told investigators that Zine, who she viewed as a platonic friend, invited her as his guest to a police competition in Calgary. Zine, who was a police union board member, insisted that he and Ward had a dating relationship. He said he repaid the union for Ward's expenses.
Zine said he can't recall details of the civil suit or the terms of the settlement. What matters, he says, is that he was cleared of the charges and that the disputed conduct did not occur in the workplace.
The councilman said his public policy concern is "the broader system, and the people who get involved in cases that costs millions of dollars in payouts and then get promoted. I've never had a case where the city paid out millions of dollars.
"The liability is where we need to get involved and make corrections."
A review by the city's chief legislative officer found LAPD legal payouts are a costly and growing concern.
From 2006 to 2012, the city spent $100.8 million on department lawsuits. More than $40 million of that involved alleged civil rights violations or police misconduct. But employee-versus-employee lawsuits generated the second-highest payouts at $31.3 million, the report shows.
The department last year appointed a risk manager to help resolve disputes before they enter the court system. But more work is needed, Zine says. He noted that two motorcycle officers in West Los Angeles won lawsuit settlements totaling $2 million in 2011 after claiming a captain illegally required ticket quotas.
The captain was promoted, Zine said. "That's the problem. Who is held accountable? It's a cycle that repeats itself."
Galperin, Zine's opponent in the upcoming election, agrees that reducing employee lawsuits is a good goal. But he thinks it should be part of a wider review of worker claims across city departments.
"We paid more than $76 million in the 2011-12 year alone in workers' comp payouts at the LAPD," Galperin said. "That accounts for more than half of the workers' comp claims for the whole city. I would audit risk management as part of a more comprehensive and independent look at ways we can save money."
Galperin said he finds it "bizarre" that, given Zine's own case, the councilman chose to make an audit of LAPD lawsuit payouts and legal risks a major campaign promise.
Among the allegations leveled at Zine in the 1997 claim was that he put a container of urine and a dozen condoms in Ward's suitcase after she rebuffed his advances. During the investigation, other officers testified that they placed the urine and condoms in Ward's suitcase as a prank.
Ward also alleged Zine slipped into her bed one night in the room they were sharing and rubbed up against her. When she objected, he retreated, according to court records.
Ward, who for a time worked as an investigator for high-profile private detective Anthony Pellicano, could not be reached for comment.
In 2000, she was terminated by the LAPD for allegedly working as a security guard while on off-duty status for an injury, records show. A department document in that case also claims she made a "false and/or misleading statement" to a supervisor during an investigation.
Zine acknowledges he made romantic overtures to Ward during the trip. But he said he never acted improperly. He says he doesn't see any inconsistency in his campaign promise to pursue reduced payouts in employee-against-employee lawsuits.
"The situation with the trip to Canada, which was a personal situation, it really had nothing to do with the Police Department," he said.