MORE

How to Bury A Scandal

Photo by Robert Yager

Deputy District Attorney Richard Rosenthal knew he had a major case on his hands when he scheduled his first interview with Rafael Perez. After all, the rogue officer had just agreed to disclose two wrongful shootings in return for a reduced sentence on charges of stealing cocaine from a Rampart Division evidence locker.

But it wasn’t until midway through the session that Rosenthal learned just how big a case he had. “It wasn’t so much a bomb as an atomic explosion,” the veteran prosecutor recalled in a recent interview. “It starts slow and then it builds up.”

The meeting took place September 10, 1999, on the 17th floor of the new MTA headquarters building downtown, a secret location for what was then a secret LAPD task force looking into allegations of misconduct by Perez and a handful of other officers.

Key to the deal was that Perez would confess to shooting and framing unarmed gang member Javier Francisco Ovando, who was then serving a lengthy jail term. Perez had agreed to describe that episode, as well as a fatal raid by the Rampart gang squad at an apartment building on Shatto Place.

That was all Perez was obligated to disclose. “Frankly, if he had just given us Ovando and claimed everything else was copasetic, that would probably have been the end of it,” Rosenthal said.

Of course, that was not the end of it. Two hours into the session, with Perez’s attorney, a court reporter and four task-force detectives on hand, Rosenthal asked Perez, “Are you aware or can you give us, today, any specific information on any other person who has been wrongfully convicted, who’s currently in custody as a result of that?”

Rather than answer directly, Perez paused, then stammered, and finally asked to review the department paperwork generated by scores of arrests. Said Perez, “I am really going to need to see those books.”

At that moment, it dawned on Rosenthal: There were too many cases for Perez to remember. “That was the first indication that there was much more to this than we really expected,” Rosenthal said later. “The shocking part was the allegation that this was common.”

Over the next two years, the city would be shocked as well, as more than 100 criminal convictions were overturned, costing upwards of $50 million in awards paid to settle civil claims, with millions more to come. In addition, the Rampart scandal sparked intervention and the threat of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, resulting in a consent decree requiring five years of federal oversight of police operations.

Yet, on the occasion of Perez’s release from prison last week, we know little more than his original, voluminous allegations. For all the controversy, litigation and blue-ribbon panels, we have yet to see a definitive account of what happened at Rampart, or an independent inquiry into the cases, or the individual officers Perez accused of misconduct.

Instead, efforts to focus on the cases named by Perez have foundered. The sole trial to arise from Rampart ended with convictions that were thrown out by the trial judge; the several other criminal convictions of Rampart officers derive from pleas entered to head off prosecutions. Likewise, inside the LAPD, internal disciplinary proceedings completed through March resulted in 15 suspensions and 36 findings of not guilty. Nine officers resigned rather than face hearings, and several were fired for lying, but none was found guilty of the egregious acts — planting evidence, unprovoked assaults — alleged by Perez.

To some degree, those tepid results derive from the shadowy nature of the incidents Perez reported — altercations between cops and gang members in some of the city’s roughest barrios. “Witness credibility in these cases is just very problematic,” said Sergeant Ray Garvin, who prosecuted several of the internal LAPD hearings. “The gang members are trying to get their cases overturned or to win judgments against the city, and the officers are trying to save their careers.”

But in equal measure, the failure to locate witnesses or evidence corroborating Perez reflects the success of damage control that kicked into gear almost as soon as the ex-cop began making accusations. In issuing repeated claims that he and his staff had discovered the problems at Rampart, Chief Parks boasts that he assigned 70 investigators to the case. But in practice, those investigators did more to stymie outside inquiries than to develop the cases Perez identified. At the same time, the D.A. and the federal courts barred outsiders from questioning Perez.

“As an attorney right now I just feel so much frustration,” said Jorge Gonzalez, who represents several plaintiffs in Rampart civil suits and for years was president of Police Watch, a group that documents complaints against the police. “The prime witness in this case is being released to head off to who-knows-where, and he has never been interviewed outside of law enforcement.”

“I don’t care how serious the D.A. and the LAPD said they were, you look at the transcripts and they were throwing softballs,” Gonzalez said. “It’s as if they take off their detective hats when they go in there.”

That suits the city’s institutions of criminal justice just fine. The LAPD disciplinary hearings that arose from the Rampart scandal have all but ground to a halt, as have the efforts of the department’s Rampart Task Force. Likewise, the D.A. has folded up its Rampart squad; Deputy District Attorney Rosenthal, in particular, has accepted a transfer to the Van Nuys Division, closer to home and far from the frustrations of the downtown office. From all appearances, as far as official Los Angeles is concerned, Rampart is over.

The clear winner in this extended round of power politics is Chief Parks, a disciplinarian and LAPD careerist who, from his first weeks in office, rebuffed the reform initiatives of the Police Commission by asserting that cops are the only ones qualified to police the department.

In the early weeks after Perez began talking, Parks seemed to take the confessions at face value, suspending officers by the score and promising full public disclosure of misconduct. But as the months wore by, his manner changed; by this year, Parks had become downright defiant.

“The real pattern and practice of the LAPD is to provide outstanding service,” Parks declared at a public forum in January. As to Rampart, Parks said, “Our intent was to get to the truth of the matter, to show that this department had a willingness to put an end to this.” That pursuit of the truth found that “Clearly we’re dealing with a number of officers that is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of this department . . . involved in criminal behavior, and they have certainly, many of them been brought to conclusion . . . It is not the crime of the century that has been articulated in the news, nor is it the worst corruption ever seen in Los Angeles.”

It was a telling choice of words. Parks was interested almost exclusively in issues of blatant criminality — theft of drugs in particular — rather than accepting â the idea that Perez was the extreme endpoint of an entire culture that needed reform. When other parties sought to examine the same cases, possibly with a different agenda, Parks and his staff pushed them back.

The department’s effort to stonewall outside inquiries was most pronounced in dealing with its ostensible partner in the case, the District Attorney’s Office. Details of the conflict came to light during the Rampart criminal trial last year, documented in a filing with the court. In a motion seeking access to LAPD personnel records and investigative files, Deputy District Attorney Brian Schirn argued that “The Rampart investigation has demonstrated how difficult it is for a law-enforcement agency to police itself. This is especially true when the investigation is as widespread and far-reaching as it is in the Rampart scandal.

“In many instances the investigators assigned to the LAPD Rampart Task Force worked Rampart [themselves] or were supervisors at Rampart at the time of the officers’ indiscretion. Many of these investigators from LAPD have relationships, even friendships, with some of the individuals under investigation. Accordingly, it is not surprising that there are some LAPD investigators who have difficulty conducting a thorough and complete investigation of the police agency to which they belong.”

Members of the task force, Schirn continued, “at times failed to conduct a thorough investigation, failed to provide vital information to the district attorney, failed to provide full discovery even after a court order, and even warned a suspect officer of search warrants to be served at several officers’ homes.”

In one case that drew broad media attention, Chief Parks himself engaged in a similar round of obstruction. Claiming to be frustrated at the slow pace of investigation and prosecution by the district attorney, Parks, in March of 2000, directed his staff to stop cooperating with the D.A.’s investigators and instead forward the fruits of the LAPD’s investigation exclusively to federal agencies, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI. The decision was pronounced illegal by the city attorney and the state attorney general, but when Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti cried foul, Parks denied the subterfuge and snubbed Garcetti as “a person who has a sagging political future.”

Parks’ conduct prompted an emergency meeting of the Police Commission and an order that Inspector General Jeffrey C. Eglash investigate to determine whether Parks’ statements amounted to official misconduct. After his staff had conducted an “extensive investigation,” including interviews with 28 individuals involved, Eglash reported back that Parks had, in fact, refused to cooperate with the district attorney, had “unnecessarily criticized” Garcetti, and had made “misleading statements” in denying the facts of the imbroglio. Moreover, Eglash reported that the chief’s top commanders, including deputy chiefs Martin Pomeroy and Michael Bostic, as well as Commander Dan Schatz, then head of the Rampart Task Force, had changed their stories to support the chief. Months later, after reviewing Eglash’s report, the Police Commission sided with the chief and rejected the I.G.’s findings.

With the investigation hopelessly stalled, with Chief Parks asserting that his department had “located” the Rampart scandal and “brought it to an end,” the question remains: What the hell happened at Rampart? Was Perez lying all along?

Defense attorneys for the police answer with an emphatic yes. The late Barry Levin, attorney for former Rampart Sergeant Edward Ortiz and himself a former cop, made the argument before a superior court jury last October. “Perez lied to the prosecutors, and he lied to the court,” Levin said. “Perez knew he needed immunity . . . so he concocted a pipe dream of a scandal on the backs of these fine officers.”

But that argument is refuted by the man who struck the deal. Speaking in his downtown office the week before his transfer to Van Nuys, Richard Rosenthal described the circumstances that led to Perez’s confession.

Rosenthal first tried Perez on drug charges in December 1998. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, the D.A. re-filed the case, and in April 1999, a grand jury answered with a new indictment. The following month, Rosenthal offered to deal with Perez attorney Winston Kevin McKesson. McKesson, in turn, made a proffer: In return for a reduced sentence, Perez would divulge all he knew about a single case of misconduct by the Rampart gang squad. “One instance of unlawful use-of-force involving three officers and a sergeant,” Rosenthal said —which turned out to be the fatal police raid on a gang wake at Shatto Place.

Rosenthal agreed to deal, but his terms included the standard stipulation, that Perez could still be prosecuted for any instances of homicide or infliction of great bodily injury. What Rosenthal, and apparently McKesson, didn’t realize was that Perez had been involved in just such a case — the shooting, with his partner Nino Durden, of Javier Ovando.

When the lawyer took Rosenthal’s terms back to Perez, they met only silence, a clear indication there was a problem. “McKesson backed off,” Rosenthal said, and the deal languished until the new trial got under way in September.

The day that trial convened, Rosenthal said, two remarkable events took place. The first happened when L.A. Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry stepped in “out of the blue,” as Rosenthal put it, and offered Perez a seven-year sentence in return for a guilty plea, regardless of whether he cooperated. Which meant, assuming half-time credit for good behavior, that “By cooperating he got one year off his prison term, and that’s it,” Rosenthal explained.

Perry’s offer left Rosenthal little with which to entice the accused officer, other than the chance to avoid the anguish of another trial. For Perez and his attorney, the decision to cooperate on other investigations was a virtual toss-up. But Rosenthal had another surprise in store. At noon of the first day, with jury selection under way, McKesson approached the prosecutor, draped an arm over his shoulder and asked if they might again discuss the deal. This time, the topic was Ovando.

Over the lunch break, McKesson sketched in the details. Perez had not followed through on the original deal offer, the lawyer explained, because there was, in fact, an incident of “great bodily injury.” The victim, a member of the 18th Street gang, was unarmed when he was cornered by Perez and Durden in an abandoned apartment. The officers shot him three times, then planted a gun on him. Later, they testified falsely that Javier Ovando had pulled a gun on them, and finally, they saw him sentenced to 23 years.

Rosenthal said he decided immediately to grant Perez immunity and pursue a habeas corpus filing in order to spring Ovando from prison. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see this was an explosive case,” Rosenthal said.

And it was more than enough, Rosenthal said, to earn Perez a deal for a five-year sentence, especially after Judge Perry had reduced the maximum term to seven. “If he gave us Ovando and Shatto Place, that would have been it.”

In fact, Rosenthal said, he was careful not to encourage Perez to give up more than he actually knew: “I tried to structure the deal in a manner that he would not have the motivation to frame other officers.

“That was what was remarkable to me later,” added Rosenthal. “When Perez started talking about all this, and he became kind of a pariah and the most hated police officer in the state . . . he only got one year off [his jail term] in order to do this. That actually inured to his credibility. Why in the world would he go through this if he didn’t have to? And he didn’t.”

Also INURING TO Perez’s credibility is the LAPD’S long record of tolerating misconduct. Even the cops at Rampart, speaking privately, will acknowledge that former Officer Brian Hewitt, fired in 1998 after a long career for his role in a station-house beating, was, as they put it, “an asshole.”

And then there are the cases that continue to arise but which continue to be dismissed as anomalies. Officer Ruben Palomares, named by Perez in yet another fatal Rampart shooting which, he said, was covered up, was arrested this June in a federal Drug Enforcement Agency sting in San Diego County. A federal prosecutor in that case said at a bail hearing that Palomares had been using his authority as a police officer to commit crimes for more than two years.

Other cases crop up in other divisions. When officers Christopher Coppock and David Cochrane were indicted for criminal misconduct last October, it led to an ongoing review of more than 40 cases for similar potential misconduct. And the Weekly’s own review of court documents related to another of the LAPD’s CRASH units, in the 77th Street division, found repeated allegations of misconduct and wrongful shootings, as well as substantial civil judgments against the department.

To attorney Gonzalez, who’s brought actions against law-enforcement agencies across the state, the situation at Rampart recalls the Sheriff’s station at Lynwood, where a class-action lawsuit against hard-charging deputies resulted in a multi-million-dollar judgment and intervention by a federal judge. “They had a GET squad, the Gang Enforcement Team,” said Gonzazlez. “They had a trailer there, too [where the unit was housed separate from the other deputies], and they had gang signs. People began to take on the same practices as the CRASH officers, and nobody told them to stop.”

For Deputy District Attorney Rosenthal, such circumstantial arguments aren’t enough to conclude that Perez was telling the truth. Rosenthal declines to offer a categorical appraisal of Perez’s testimony: “Help the community decide what happened at Rampart? Sorry. I just can’t do it.”

The difficulty, Rosenthal said, is that “I cannot, without corroboration, believe what Perez said . . . The problem is that he’s very charismatic and convincing, whether he’s telling the truth or he’s lying.”

In his frustration, attorney Gonzalez proposes another tack. “Put Brian Hewitt on a lie detector and let him answer a few questions.”

Perez is gone, but it’s impossible simply to bookend a civic tsunami on the scale of the Rampart scandal. The District Attorney’s Office has all but closed its books, and Chief Parks has grown comfortable in claiming victory, but the story continues to play out on another level — the slow but sure grind of the federal government.

There are two main players still on the field, the U.S. Department of Justice and District Court Judge Gary Feess, empowered to enforce a consent decree holding the LAPD to new standards of review and accountability.

Officials at Justice insist that their investigation into criminal misconduct and civil rights violations at Rampart is continuing. That stance led many observers to predict that prosecutors would slap Perez with an indictment upon his release from state prison last week.

That didn’t happen. Nevertheless, Justice spokesman Thom Mrozek maintained, “We have an ongoing investigation into allegations of civil rights abuses by members of the LAPD Rampart CRASH unit. Beyond that we will not comment.” Mrozek added that, “The FBI is the primary investigative agency,” and said other police incidents, including the shooting of Margaret Mitchell, a homeless woman slain after she was stopped for unauthorized possession of a shopping cart, are also under review.

On the civil side, former Manhattan prosecutor Michael Cherkasky has been appointed by Judge Feess to serve as his monitor in overseeing the consent decree. In an interview last week, Cherkasky acknowledged that there is no consensus on the extent and nature of police misconduct at Rampart. “We’re getting 180 degrees,” Cherkasky said, “divergent opinions about the consent decree, about the LAPD, about the political will in this community being for reform or not being for reform — enormously disparate views about this.”

But Cherkasky said he doesn’t need to resolve the question of past practices to implement reforms that date back to the Christopher Commission. Besides, he sees an important role for an independent monitor. “Clearly there has been a failure in the balance of the different institutions in Los Angeles. That’s why the federal government has come in and sued, and that’s why this case has been settled.”

The decree, designed by the representatives of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division in Washington in collaboration with the LAPD, the City Council and the Mayor’s Office, sharply restricts the monitor’s purview. In reviewing the conduct of internal investigations, for example, the monitor may recommend changes in procedure, but “Such evaluation . . . shall not obligate the department to reopen or re-adjudicate any investigation.” Moreover, the decree states, “The monitor shall not make any public statements or issue findings with regard to any act or omission of the city.”

Yet Cherkasky said he’s confident he has the authority, vested in him by the judge, to effect meaningful reform at the LAPD. Central to those reforms is installation of a new computer tracking system that will compile reports of misconduct and citizen complaints on individual officers, as well as close tracking of traffic stops and other police activity by race and by district. The idea is to “institutionalize the process of looking at police officers’ full records, of how they behave themselves, and having that information available to make management decisions about promotions and discipline and assignments. That’s an institutional change I think is terribly important.”

Cherkasky added that he believes changes in process can be more effective than making individual cases: “In 1986, I was made the head of the rackets bureau in Manhattan, and I brought a prosecution that indicted 41 building inspectors. And I, showing all traces of hubris, said, ‘I have cleaned up the building inspectors.’ And in three years, I did 29 more. And what it really taught me was, you know, making arrests and prosecuting people doesn’t change the system, that you have to have organizational, systemic change.”

Of course, Cherkasky is not the first person named to a position of authority in order to rein in the LAPD. The difference this time, Cherkasky said, is the source of his authority. Inspector General Jeffrey Eglash “reports to the Police Commission,” Cherkasky observed. “I report to a federal judge.”


Sponsor Content