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Government's 4-Year Bias Lawsuit Against El Monte Ends : Jobs: U.S. had originally alleged 64 victims. Judge rules that two individuals were victims of discrimination.

November 17, 1994|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal government's four-year discrimination lawsuit against El Monte ended last week after a federal court judge ruled that two individuals had been discriminated against.

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The federal Department of Justice had alleged that the city denied blacks and Asian Americans entry-level jobs as police officers and firefighters. The two individuals, who were the only ones left in the suit after a long wrangle between the city and Justice Department, will receive $20,000 in compensation each, for a total city payout of $40,000.

That reduced number contrasts dramatically with the 64 possible victims originally brought forward by the federal Department of Justice, the $330,000 the city was required to set aside for all those victims and the $550,000 the city ultimately spent on legal fees fighting the federal case.

"We feel like it was kind of a witch hunt," said El Monte Mayor Patricia Wallach. "It's just ludicrous that the Department of Justice came in with a case this thin."

Wallach's complaints were echoed by lawyers representing three other cities, Alhambra and Pomona in the San Gabriel Valley and Torrance in the South Bay. All three cities have been accused of discrimination in hiring police officer and firefighters and were likewise sued by the Justice Department.

Justice Department officials say they prosecuted the cities only after receiving discrimination complaints against them and after investigating to find sufficient legal grounds to file the lawsuits.

The department began legal action against El Monte in 1990. According to federal officials, the city's 107-member police force had only one black member and its 66-member fire department only one Asian American firefighter. Federal officials argued that the low numbers were the result of discriminatory hiring policies from 1985 to 1990.

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In 1992, the city agreed to set aside $330,000 in compensation for alleged victims. The Justice Department put ads in local newspapers asking people who thought they were victims of discrimination to come forward.

After sifting through 64 claims, the city agreed to pay 14 individuals, said Mary Dollarhide, the attorney who represented El Monte.

But when the city discovered that the first person on the list was a white male and the second person had a criminal record that would have disqualified him for a job as a police officer, El Monte officials decided to contest the payment, she said.

Six other alleged victims were disqualified for compensation be cause they would have been too old at the time of application to have been hired as police or fire cadets, Dollarhide said. Others were eliminated for other, similar kinds of reasons that the Department of Justice could have easily checked, she said.

"They were coming out and doing what I perceive to be sloppy work," Dollarhide said. "If we hadn't challenged them, we would have forked out money to Mr. White Guy."

The city believes that the final two candidates also do not qualify. One lacks the educational background claimed on her application and another failed a number of qualifying tests for other police departments, Dollarhide said. But after Los Angeles U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real ruled against the city on Nov. 7, the City Council decided to end the costly legal battle and pay the remaining two, Dollarhide said.

"It's very frustrating from the city's point of view," Wallach said. She added that city officials kept battling the federal government instead of simply paying the money because city officials did not believe the city was guilty of discrimination.

City officials still deny that they discriminated against anyone. According to statistics in a recent ACLU study of police and fire departments, El Monte now has three blacks and four Asian Americans on its 126-member police force. Among the city's 57 firefighters, one is black and one is Asian American.

But city officials say the low numbers do not reflect patterns of discrimination, but simply the difficulty of attracting minority candidates to work in small cities where pay is usually lower than in larger urban agencies.

Attorneys for the three other cities sued by the Justice Department are also crying foul. The number of victims will ultimately amount to a few handfuls and not the scores initially claimed by the government, the attorneys contend.

"It's a sellers' market for minority public safety workers," said Drew Bridges, Alhambra's attorney. Alhambra recently lost to the city of San Jose its black police chief, Raymond Brooks, who was hired by Alhambra after a nationwide recruitment, Bridges said.

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The federal government claimed that nearly 100 individuals were discriminated against in Alhambra. But by checking each claim, many applicants were eliminated and the final number might actually be closer to 10, Bridges said.

"The numbers are ludicrous," agreed Torrance City Atty. John Fellows, whose city is sifting through 76 claims. "It's the closest thing to extortion that you can imagine."

The city of Pomona, which was accused of discriminating against black police officers, may reach a resolution with the federal government by the end of the year, said Pomona City Atty. Arnold Alvarez-Glasman. The city, which set aside $160,000 for compensation and $40,000 for a recruitment program, has nearly finished sifting through the claims of 44 people, Alvarez-Glasman said.

RELATED STORY: Page 6

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