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Suit Challenging Firings, Demotions May Cost Millions : Court: Guards union says State Personnel Board failed to rule on 55 cases within six-month deadline.

THE PRICE OF PUNISHMENT. The Booming Business of Running California's Prisons. Last in a series


SACRAMENTO — Some were fired for hitting inmates, using drugs or having sex with the felons they were supposed to be guarding.

Others were demoted for falling asleep on the job, malingering or cursing at their bosses. They all may get back pay, or get back on the state payroll, thanks to a little-noticed suit by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. that could ultimately cost the state $81 million.

The union is challenging discipline meted out against 55 members in the suit against the State Personnel Board, an agency empowered to affirm or overrule disciplinary actions by state departments against employees.

The union contends that many disciplinary actions should be thrown out because the board failed to decide the cases within the six-month period required by law. Last month, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

The Department of Corrections accounted for 31.5% of the 2,000 discipline cases heard last year by the personnel board, up from 24.1% two years earlier. This year, the board will receive a $1.5-million boost in its budget to hire more hearing officers to clear a backlog of cases.

Some of the cases challenged by the union involve:

* A tower guard fired at Tehachapi after he left his post and went into a cell to assault an inmate, who earlier refused to follow his command.

The officer slapped the prisoner, then took off his badge, bashed the prisoner in the face and shoved him into the wall, according to the personnel board. An administrative law judge concluded that the officer's action cast "discredit upon law enforcement officers generally and upon the Department of Corrections."

* An officer fired from a minimum-security camp for lying on his application. He claimed he had no drug abuse problems, although he was hospitalized for drug use shortly before taking a job with the department, and later used speed, the personnel board concluded.

* A medical technician at Norco who was fired in 1990 when investigators found he gave drugs to a female prisoner in exchange for sex.

The inmate had told investigators that "she could have sex with appellant any time she chose. They challenged her to do it the next day." When the technician showed up the next day, the inmate led him to a room. There, he began fondling and kissing her. Investigators were watching from nearby. When they burst in, he resigned on the spot, but later sought to keep his job.

* Two officers were fired and two suspended from the Chino prison for assaulting an inmate known as the "old man." On medication for mental illness, the man was notorious for yelling at passersby. One night, the inmate made a sexual reference to a female officer. Guards took him from his cell and brought him to a stairwell. There, one officer pulled on black gloves and, as others watched, slugged and kicked the prisoner. The old man cried out apologies and pleaded with them to stop.

Don Novey, president of the union, said that although some of the alleged wrongdoing may be "sickening," the department also takes action against good officers simply because managers don't like them. By sometimes failing to meet its six-month deadline, the State Personnel Board leaves workers hanging, not knowing whether they have jobs or not.

"It's all about being fair," Novey said. "In labor, losing your job is like death. All we ask is that they decide the cases in six months."

An internal State Personnel Board memo says that if the union wins the suit, the state would have to pay $4.6 million in back pay to corrections employees in the 55 cases. But a union victory could extend to 1,900 cases involving employees from many state departments, which were not decided within the six-month deadline. Costs could top $81 million, plus interest, according to the memo.

"Re-employment of some of these individuals will constitute a significant risk and liability to the state departments," the memo said.

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