The California Highway Patrol’s overtime scandal — in which more than 100 officers from its East Los Angeles branch may have inflated their overtime while helping Caltrans workers stay safe while doing freeway maintenance work — could explode into a statewide scandal. That’s contrary to claims made when the scandal first emerged in February, when CHP officials said a survey of other commands turned up no similar false claims.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and a team of attorneys are representing more than 30 of the accused CHP officers. According to a Los Angeles Times report, 14 accused officers are facing termination while 90 more are still being investigated. Cooley says about 40 in total are at risk of being fired.
The main allegation facing officers: That they would seek eight hours of overtime pay after only being needed by Caltrans to work half that many hours or less on protection details.
Overtime Spiking Called Common Across State
But in court documents and in comments to the Times, Cooley says he can establish several points countering the CHP’s claims about the case. The most serious: The practice of padding such overtime is common in many of the 103 CHP commands around the state, according to former CHP officers. This would mean that Caltrans was overcharged by far more than the $360,000 that CHP has already documented.
Cooley also alleged that several middle- and upper-level CHP officials, including one who helped launch the East L.A. probe, engaged in the same questionable overtime billing practice when they were lower-ranking officers from 2007 to 2009.
The CHP is so far resisting releasing related documents requested by Cooley’s team and the media, saying the information is related to the ongoing investigation of the scandal.
But the involvement of another state agency with its own reputation to protect makes it seem unlikely that CHP can keep the lid on the scandal, as it tried to do on other internal problems earlier this century.
In February, Caltrans Director Laurie Berman announced that the agency’s inspector general would do a thorough audit of the CHP-Caltrans relationship.
“Caltrans takes violations of the law very seriously and illegal activity of any kind is not tolerated within the department,” Berman said in a statement to the Times. “If it is determined there was Caltrans employee misconduct, disciplinary action will be taken.”
Caltrans has not disclosed a timetable for when the inspector general’s audit will be released.
Scandal Echoes Those Seen in Schwarzenegger Years
The scandal marks the end to a decade of relative quiet for California’s largest law-enforcement agency. Among the allegations against the CHP during the Schwarzenegger administration:
In 2009, the Ventura County Star reported that there was strong evidence that CHP officials impeded a hate-crimes investigation of a local CHP officer involved in a racially charged incident after officers held a party at an Oxnard hotel.
In 2006, the Sacramento Bee reported that the CHP spent nearly $50 million on helicopters and motorcycles that were not open to competitive bidding. The companies given the contracts — Eurocopters and BMW, respectively — had courted top CHP officials with gifts and meals.
In 2004, the Bee reported on the “Chiefs’ Disease” phenomenon in which 80 percent of top CHP officials filed for medical disabilities in late career, enabling them to get much more generous pensions. Because police discipline records were then confidential, Bee reporters confirmed the scandal through worker’s compensation claims filed by the CHP executives.
A CHP attorney threatened the Bee with a lawsuit if the records were used in the newspaper’s reporting, saying the records were confidential. The Bee went ahead with the story, prompting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to eventually force out then-CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick.
(This article was written in partnership with the nonprofit Foundation for Investigative Journalism.)