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Judge to Weigh Reasons for Firing of Bell Gardens Officer

December 17, 1987|RITA PYRILLIS | Times Staff Writer

BELL GARDENS — A Superior Court judge will consider Friday whether former police officer Richard Rice was fired last summer for good reason or because he ordered a report on a city councilman who was suspected of soliciting a prostitute.

Rice, 36, was dismissed in June after police officials criticized his handling of the investigation involving veteran City Councilman Roger McComas.

Although police officials don't dispute the contents of the report, a hearing board questioned Rice's motives for filing it. The board also found that he lied when he denied suggesting to the president of the local police union that the report could be used as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations.

"This is nothing but a witch hunt," Rice said this week, contending that he was really fired because he ordered the report on McComas in the first place.

In an interview, McComas denied any wrongdoing and said the report's basic allegation "is nonsense"

"Have I ever been with a hooker? The answer is no," McComas said.

The incident unfolded, according to police reports, when Rice was acting station commander on March 24. Another officer reported seeing a white male drive a 1978 white and brown Dodge motor home up to the Durango Bar on Eastern Avenue and solicit a prostitute about 1 a.m.

Reported Recognition

The officer, Joe Marquez, reported that he recognized the man to be McComas. Marquez said that after picking up the woman, the man drove through several streets and alleyways, but then dropped the woman off after apparently realizing that he had been spotted by police.

In an interview with the woman, an alleged prostitute, Marquez reported that she identified McComas as a "George Ramirez . . . a regular customer. . . . "

Marquez reported the details to Rice, who in turn ordered preparation of a formal police report. Rice later asked Marquez to tape record a follow-up interview with the woman and write a memo summarizing their conversation. Court documents say that memo was sent to Lt. Richard Webb, who then gave it to Police Chief William Donohoe.

Donohoe declined to comment this week.

McComas said this week that he was indeed driving his motor home in the area that night, but that he never stopped at the Durango and never picked up the woman.

"They (the police) made it up," McComas said. "I don't know anything about it. It's a whole, big made up story. Everything I say gives it more validity so I'm not going to say anything. If they have something against me, then (the district attorney should) prosecute me."

McComas said the district attorney has already reviewed the reports and decided not to take action.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Mason confirmed that the incident was reviewed by prosecutors, but said that "after conducting an independent investigation . . . we concluded it would not be filed."

Mason said prosecutors were unable to corroborate statements from the alleged prostitute and the facts were insufficient "to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. McComas committed the crime of engaging in an act of prostitution."

A short time after the incident, police administrators questioned Rice about how he conducted the investigation and Rice contended that he followed normal police procedure in ordering the report on McComas. But after taking statements from the officers involved, officials determined that a disciplinary hearing was warranted.

"I can go home and I can sleep saying I did what I should have done," Rice said during the hearing.

But in June, the six-year veteran was dismissed for allegedly lying about a conversation he had with Ralph White, then-president of the police union. White told the hearing board that Rice had mentioned the report to him and suggested that the union "jump on" the incident as a political issue in negotiations. When Rice was questioned, he said he didn't recall such a conversation.

In July, Rice lost an administrative appeal, so he took his case to the Superior Court. Lawyers for the city initially asked Judge Jerome K. Fields to seal the McComas report and other records from public view. But last week they narrowed the request to cover only two pages of one departmental transcript, and the judge agreed.

Fields has scheduled a hearing in Rice's case for Friday.

"There was no good reason for firing Rice," his attorney, Michael Hannon said. "Now we are asking a court to decide."

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