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Lost Federal Lawsuit Over His Firing : Ex-Huntington Park Police Chief Sues Again

March 10, 1988|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

Former Huntington Park Police Chief Geano Contessotto, who lost a federal lawsuit challenging his firing last summer, has filed another suit alleging that he was dismissed without reason after 18 years of good service to the Police Department.

The latest lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Norwalk, also alleges that Councilman Herbert A. Hennes Jr. and police Capt. Martin Simonoff conspired to oust him.

Contessotto's first lawsuit accused the city of improperly firing him without a meaningful hearing to contest the action. A federal judge ruled against Contessotto, finding that the police chief serves at the pleasure of the City Council and can be fired at any time.

The new lawsuit, filed last month, contains much of the same allegations. It contends that Contessotto was fired without good reason, in violation of a verbal agreement he had with the council when he accepted the appointed position.

Assurance Sought

One of Contessotto's attorneys, Scott J. Seiden, said recently that the City Council had assured Contessotto that he would not be fired without cause. Seiden said Contessotto sought the assurance when he gave up his Civil Service protection as a lieutenant to become chief in 1983.

The City Council has never revealed its reason for firing Contessotto.

"If you have an employee who has 18 years on the job, and he was taken from his Civil Service status . . . and he has been terminated for no cause by the city's own admission, that's a wrongful termination," Seiden said.

The lawsuit contends that Contessotto, 41, has suffered emotional stress resulting in hypertension and gastrointestinal problems. It also contends that the firing has left Contessotto unable to get another job as a police chief. Contessotto now works for an escrow company.

The lawsuit seeks more than $2.5 million in damages from the city, Hennes and Simonoff.

Samuel J. Wells, an attorney representing the city, said the City Council had an unconditional right to fire Contessotto.

"I don't believe that any such (oral) agreement was ever made," Wells said. "And No. 2, that issue's already been litigated in federal court."

The Superior Court lawsuit goes further than the original suit in that it accuses Hennes and Simonoff of conspiring so that Contessotto would fall into disfavor with the council and lose his job.

But Wells said there was no conspiracy, "absolutely none whatsoever."

Contessotto's dismissal came against the backdrop of ongoing police problems. The department has been hit with several lawsuits--some of which are still pending--alleging brutality by officers in the last few years.

In a highly publicized case, for example, two Huntington Park officers were accused in November, 1986, of using a stun gun to extract a confession from a teen-age burglary suspect. Former officers William J. Lustig and Robert Rodriguez were convicted in December. Lustig was sentenced to two years in state prison and Rodriguez drew a six-month term in Los Angeles County Jail.

Hennes called for Contessotto's ouster in February, 1987. During a closed meeting, Hennes said Contessotto was an incompetent administrator. But the other four council members supported the chief.

Tensions within the department peaked the following April, when Contessotto fired his two captains--including Simonoff--accusing them of insubordination for not reporting to him allegations of a crime by a Huntington Park officer.

Simonoff and Capt. Charles Plum told Hennes about that incident. In January, 1987, Hennes contacted Sheriff Sherman A. Block to request an investigation into reports that a police officer had unsuccessfully solicited a former officer to commit a robbery. Sheriff's investigators said they were unable to prove the allegations, so no charges were filed.

Simonoff and Plum, who retired earlier this year, were reinstated by Contessotto amid a Civil Service hearing they requested to appeal their firings.

Attorneys for the captains said Simonoff and Plum went to Hennes because they feared Contessotto would be biased in favor of the officer involved in the allegations.

In the lawsuit, Contessotto alleges that Hennes and Simonoff were trying to make him look bad by calling for the outside investigation.

'Distorted Report'

Hennes and Simonoff "publicly released a distorted and contentious report of their aforedescribed conduct, all with the intent and purpose of impairing and destroying plaintiff's credibility, reputation, employment and career," the lawsuit says.

Seiden noted that Simonoff was in line to fill Contessotto's position.

The lawsuit said Contessotto also was targeted because he is Latino. Contessotto's father is of Italian descent; his mother is of Mexican descent.

Then, in early June, Hennes called for a city investigation of allegations that the police chief had solicited four officers for information to discredit Hennes.

The council was scheduled to decide later that month whether to initiate an investigation. Instead, the council decided to fire Contessotto at its June 22 meeting, effective July 24. Although the council gave no official reason for the firing, Mayor Thomas E. Jackson said the next day that the "animosities and bickering in the Police Department, and the negative image brought to the community at large, had reached such gigantic proportions . . . that only replacement of the department head could return the city to its prior stability."

The City Council replaced Contessotto with Patrick M. Connolly, formerly chief of campus police at UCLA, who started in January.

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