California accused dozens of CHP officers of overtime fraud. Their defense: Everyone does it

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California Highway Patrol officers stationed in East Los Angeles grew so accustomed to uneventful overtime shifts that they set up a room with six beds where they could sleep while on duty, according to investigative reports prepared by the department.

Photos of the beds, set up in a room nicknamed “535 Inn” after the station’s identification number, appear in reports that formed the basis for the CHP to fire many of the officers and, early this year, for Attorney General Rob Bonta to charge 54 of them with fraud and felony wage theft of about $267,000.

The criminal charges followed a CHP audit and investigation that found officers exaggerated the overtime hours they had worked on late-night Caltrans details, reporting full shifts when in fact they spent only a few hours, or none, at work sites. The East L.A. office was the smallest in CHP’s Southern Division but accounted for nearly three times as much reimbursable overtime as the largest office in the division, according to a summary of CHP’s initial audit.

By Thursday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge had dismissed charges against nearly all of the officers — over objections from Bonta’s office — in a deal that allowed them to repay Caltrans for the unworked hours without admitting guilt. Fifty-two of the 54 officers agreed to the deal, while two planned to proceed to trial.

A batch of investigative reports the CHP recently provided in response to a California Public Records Act request from The Sacramento Bee, along with the defense attorneys’ court documents, provide new details of how the investigation came about and hint at how the criminal cases frayed.

The accused officers claimed, in court documents prepared by attorneys, that East L.A.’s overtime practices had been the same or similar for nearly 20 years before the audit, were supported by a written policy, were approved by managers and were common at CHP offices throughout the state.

The practice of leaving work early and then receiving full pay starts at CHP’s training academy, and is so common that officers often stop working after filling traffic ticket or DUI quotas, even if their shift isn’t over, the accused officers claimed in the court documents.

The officers claimed CHP singled out them out with an investigation only because two officers had filed a labor grievance over changes to the overtime shifts.

“The conduct they engaged in was perfectly legal; it was an accepted practice for decades,” said Steve Cooley, a Los Angeles-based attorney who represented the officers in administrative proceedings and in preliminary Los Angeles County legal proceedings.

In a 2019 press conference, former California Highway Patrol Southern Division Chief Mark Garrett strongly condemned what he said was fraudulent activity in the East L.A. office, calling it an “aberration” among the department’s 103 commands around the state.

The CHP had not responded by the end of the day Friday to questions from The Bee, emailed Monday, about overtime practices at different offices and other aspects of its investigation.

Padded hours on Caltrans details

Caltrans requested most of the CHP details from the East L.A. station through a program called the Maintenance Zone Enhanced Enforcement Program, or MAZEEP, that was created in 1997 to improve safety in work zones for things like graffiti removal or electrical work.

The program has reduced speeding and crashes and helped curb incidents such as people throwing objects at workers from cars, according to Caltrans budget requests and CHP’s investigative reports.

Supervisors request each security detail and Caltrans pays for them out of a designated fund. Highway Patrol officers volunteer for the shifts, which in East L.A. typically ran from around 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The majority of MAZEEP shifts in the East L.A. area ended early, according to the reports. Officers returned to the office, went home or traveled somewhere else, remaining available by cell phone and reporting eight hours or more of overtime, according to the CHP investigation, which drew on subpoenaed cell phone data and other records to establish officers’ movements.

Ticket quotas, Rose Bowl duty let CHP officers claim full shifts for few hours work

Caltrans supervisors signed off on officers’ time claims, according to CHP’s reports.

The reports probed whether any quid pro quo existed between Caltrans and CHP employees.

They established only that the two groups socialized outside work and that East L.A. officers “sometimes chipped in to purchase pizza, barbecue, or birthday presents” for the Caltrans employees, according to a summary of facts included in an April 2020 State Personnel Board order denying a disciplinary appeal from three officers.

At some point, Caltrans employees started putting in regular requests for 22 CHP officers from the East L.A. command for eight-hour shifts every night from Monday through Thursday — so many that the office’s regular patrol fleet was depleted, according to an interview in the reports with Lt. Melissa Hammond, who was promoted to a leadership role in the East L.A. office in 2016.

An administrative sergeant at the office had attempted to reduce the overtime four years earlier.

She met resistance, so she proposed a compromise in 2012, according to the summary: Officers could continue to report full overtime shifts even if they didn’t stay at Caltrans sites the whole time, but they had to finish out the shifts on standby in the East L.A. office, rather than going home or elsewhere.

The accused officers said in their criminal defense documents that they were following the 2012 agreement, memorialized in a Standard Operation Procedure, when they filed timesheets for more time than they spent at the work sites.

At first, most officers complied with the 2012 policy, according to the State Personnel Board summary. But many were sleeping in a locker room or in their cars while finishing out the shifts. Since so many of them were sleeping on the site, they set up the bunk room they called the 535 Inn.

After a while, they started just going home, and commanders didn’t stop them, according to the SPB summary.

After Lt. Hammond began her assignment in the East L.A. office, she found $3.1 million had been paid in reimbursable overtime at the office in 2016, even though it was the smallest geographical territory in CHP’s Southern Division. The largest office in the area, Santa Fe Springs, had a total of $1.2 million in reimbursable overtime, according to a summary in CHP’s 8,500-page audit and investigation.

Former CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley ordered a temporary 20% reduction to all overtime statewide in 2017, according to the report. Hammond initiated new efforts to reduce overtime, including reducing the weeknight MAZEEP contingent from 22 officers to 13 and trimming the shifts to 6.5 hours from 8. She also got rid of the beds, and attempted to open up more overtime assignments to other offices.

Officers objected to the changes. In March 2018, an anonymous person sent a bouquet of flowers to Hammond and a sergeant including a card “which sarcastically congratulated them on the morale at the office,” according to a criminal defense court document.

Later that month, two officers filed a grievance accusing managers of violating past practice and failing to meet and confer with union representatives about changes to the overtime shifts. In the criminal defense court documents, the officers say a superior officer of Hammond’s arrived at the station angry about the grievance, and his anger sparked the audit.

The area managers have rejected that version of events. According to the CHP memo initiating the audit, the investigation was launched after four candidates for captain described “shady,” unethical and “underhanded” practices surrounding the distribution of voluntary overtime.

The “consistency of the responses,” coupled with the “seriousness of the issues,” called for an investigation, the memo states.

California Highway Patrol investigators drew on interviews, time sheets, dispatch call records, digital data from patrol cars and subpoenaed mobile phone records showing officers’ movements to prove the overtime practices, according to extensive investigative records the department provided for 18 of the officers. The audit period was January 2016 through March 2018.

Caltrans conducted its own audit of the MAZEEP program in 2021, identifying shortcomings in the department’s verification of CHP invoices, its verification of CHP’s wages and benefits and maintenance of source documents, among other findings.

The department did not respond to questions by a deadline this week about whether it had disciplined any employees.

Mass firings at Highway Patrol

The CHP hasn’t said exactly how many officers it dismissed or disciplined.

Administrative Law Judge Teri Block, in a case summary included in an April 14, 2021 order in a State Personnel Board appeal of one officer’s discipline, said 86 officers and sergeants were investigated and 42 were dismissed.

Many officers appealed the discipline, including some young officers who reported only a couple hours of unworked overtime, said Cooley, the attorney, who represented many of the officers in the appeals. Administrative law judges rejected most of their appeals, he said.

Block issued a decision that was an outlier among the determinations, clearing a young officer of all charges, which was later overturned, Cooley said.

In her order, Block identified policy violations, but found managers failed to enforce policies, failed to inform officers of them and had themselves charged for overtime the same way before their promotions, establishing a practice that the dismissed officer had followed like anyone else.

Overtime in CHP commands

Part of what convinced Block was testimony from at least one sergeant who said overtime shifts were treated the same way in East L.A. as they were at CHP offices in Oakland, Hayward, Dublin and Marin.

She also found credible a sergeant’s testimony that CHP officers are often released early from mandatory training assignments, but are paid for the full sessions.

Those claims were a centerpiece of the accused officers’ criminal defense, according to court documents prepared by their defense attorneys.

The court documents claim CHP officers are routinely paid for unworked hours all over the state in a variety of assignments, including dignitary and parade security assignments that had been worked by some of the department’s highest-ranking officials.

Four retired CHP officials said in a July 7 court document that it’s common to work less than a full shift and receive full pay.

Among them was former CHP Chief Art Acevedo, who had been a captain of the East L.A. station.

Acevedo said in his statement that former CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley, who led the department at the time of the East L.A. investigation, had “in essence, singled out and decimated an entire CHP command for a practice the CHP knew or should have known about, and for a practice I, and many others, strongly believe extends beyond the East Los Angeles Station.”

Acevedo added in his statement that the CHP had the right to change course, but that it should have placed the “entire work force on notice” before implementing changes, rather than “scapegoating” the East L.A. officers.

Garrett, the former CHP Southern Division commander, announced at the February 2019 press conference that the CHP was investigating what he said was “abhorrent” misconduct at the East L.A. command.

But Garrett assured reporters that the fraudulent activity, as he called it, was limited to the one station.

“We have found nothing to lead us to believe that what happened in East Los Angeles was anything other than a specific aberration,” Garrett said. “That’s it.”

He said the department conducted initial assessments at all 103 CHP commands around the state, while adding that the department was working with 32 investigators from the Attorney General’s Office to conduct more in-depth inspections.

The CHP didn’t respond to The Bee’s questions about whether it has found similar overtime practices anywhere else.