Former Costa Mesa police chief explains his departure

(Courtesy Chris Shawkey)

Costa Mesa’s former police chief confirmed in a recent interview that he was suspended and ultimately resigned from the city after an investigation found that he had charged gas for his personal vehicle on a city credit card.

“Bad judgment? Yes,” said Chris Shawkey, 52. “I should’ve gone to the city manager and said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and work it out that way. But that was really the only thing outside of my employment agreement.”

Expense reports submitted to his department over his four years — he was hired in 2006 — show he charged hundreds of gallons of gas across California, Arizona and other states.

But that was all within his right, Shawkey said, pointing out that his employment agreement seemed to allow the practice.

That agreement granted the Arizona transplant a city-leased vehicle and unlimited mileage, but did not specify that he only could use the card or vehicle on city business, he said.

However, Shawkey acknowledged that he improperly used the card when he was traveling in his personal vehicle, an SUV, about 10 times, by his estimation. He said his city-issued Ford 500 wasn’t big enough for his wife and kids.

The billings were approved by the Finance Department and signed off by his subordinate, then-Capt. Ron Smith.

“I didn’t hide the receipts,” an exasperated Shawkey said. “I turned in the receipts. What am I hiding?”

Even though Smith reported to him, Shawkey was adamant that Smith would have stood up to him if something were done incorrectly. The process for approving the chief’s expenses changed after he left the department, he said.

Shawkey, a father of five and a Coto de Caza resident, said a recent Pilot story about him being a finalist for a police chief’s job in Washington state made him step forward.

“I felt now was an opportunity, if anyone’s interested, for me to kind of get my side out there and kind of balance things out,” he said. “When this whole thing happened, I never really got the opportunity to put my side out there because I was bound by the investigation at the time.”

Shawkey runs his own private investigations company, CS and Associates Consulting and Investigations, and wants to become a police chief again. He was the runner-up for the Washington job, he said.

In the fall 2010, then-City Manager Allan Roeder suspended Shawkey amid allegations of abusing his city-issued credit card and absenteeism.

While he’s owned up to his mistake with the former, it’s the latter accusation that frustrates Shawkey the most.

“No one should ever question my dedication,” he said. “I was certainly there; I put in more than 40 hours a week.”

For his first year on the job, he traveled five hours each way to and from Arizona on weekends. After his oldest son graduated from high school, the family relocated to Coto de Caza.

One son recently finished his church mission in Mexico — the family is Mormon — and another is set to go later this year, Shawkey said. His daughter, his oldest child, lives in North Carolina.

“There’s about four of us left in the house,” he said.

Shawkey oversaw the Police Department during the city’s toughest time in years: the height of a recession that saw tax revenues drop while employee costs climbed. He pointed out that he lost 40 employees during his tenure but saw violent crime drop about 30% in his last year.

He also promoted the department’s first two female sergeants and reduced vandalism.

But he also butted heads with some city leaders, he said.

He refused to name names, but said he pushed back when a city councilman questioned why police wouldn’t impound the cars of undocumented immigrants if their vehicles were left on private property.

Doing so would have been illegal, Shawkey said.

Then he was grilled on why police were investigating a burnt Koran left outside of a local Islamic education center as a hate crime.

“Seriously, you’re really asking me that?” Shawkey said he remembered thinking. “I think it was kind of a perfect storm of events inside the department and outside the department. If you don’t want me here, just come tell me.”

He accused the city’s Police Management Assn., a small group of lieutenants and captains, of instigating the investigation into his expenditures.

Some officers were unhappy with program and staffing cuts the department faced, or unhappy when he didn’t fire an officer who neglected his duty.

The association declined to comment for this story.

“It was a matter of do I stay and fight it or just move on, be professional?” Shawkey said of his departure. “Recognize things are the way they are. You gave it your all…That’s what I said when I resigned. I’m proud of the job I did here.”

Twitter: @JosephSerna