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Chief Ordered Stakeout of Candidate

Police: El Monte official said he had officers wait for city treasurer, who was running for council, outside a bar, but denied action was politically motivated.

July 08, 1999|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

El Monte's police chief targeted the city treasurer--a political rival--for possible arrest and had two officers wait more than three hours outside a bar to pick him up on suspicion of drunk driving late last year, according to a court transcript provided Wednesday to The Times.

The officers arrested Treasurer Henry Velasco in November after he left the Elks Lodge, which contains a bar, and drove a few blocks. Velasco was a City Council candidate at the time and later lost by a landslide.

He is fighting the charges in Citrus Municipal Court, claiming that he was the victim of politically motivated law enforcement. Pretrial motions were filed beginning in January and testimony on them is continuing.

"This was a setup," Velasco said in an interview Wednesday. "If you called any police department and told them there's a couple drunks down at Joe's tavern, would they send two cops to wait three hours and 20 minutes?"

The transcript sheds new light on a controversial arrest that has prompted some to criticize the El Monte Police Department as too political. Indeed, the police union has so much campaign muscle in town that it outspent the mayor and all City Council candidates during the last election in March, records show.

Chief Wayne Clayton did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. In testimony last month, however, he denied that Velasco's arrest was politically motivated--although he was aware how it could be perceived. "The political ramifications would never be pleasing," Clayton testified June 10. "But I was pleased to the extent that an intoxicated driver was off the streets of El Monte."

Clayton admitted that he had the lodge staked out for Velasco after receiving a phone tip from a close friend also involved in city politics. The chief testified that Marvin Cichy called him at home just after 5 p.m. Nov. 23 to say Velasco appeared to be drunk when he arrived at the Stewart Street lodge.

Clayton testified that he called the watch commander, who asked two officers to go to the lodge. Once they found Velasco's car, they were told to stay and call headquarters from a public telephone--not over the radio, the transcript says.

About 9:50 p.m., Velasco left the lodge. He began driving down Ramona Boulevard, swerved two or three times and almost struck a parked car, the police report says.

Velasco was given a field sobriety test and then arrested, the report says. Results of a breath test taken later showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.16% to 0.18%, about twice the legal limit for driving.

Clayton testified that he hoped Velasco would walk out to his car sober. The chief added that officers could not have intervened before Velasco began driving because there would have been no probable cause until he committed a traffic violation. "I would have done the same thing if it would have been anybody else," Clayton testified.

But Assistant Chief Bill Ankeny said in an interview Wednesday that he could not recall any other case in which a suspected drunk driver had been the single target of a stakeout. Asked if officers would usually wait outside a bar several hours, he said: "Chances are we would not do that."

Velasco wouldn't comment on his sobriety level that night but has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He said Clayton has long held a grudge against him. They were friends initially, Velasco said, adding that they began to drift apart as they rose in city government.

As a council member from 1976 to 1986, Velasco voted against promoting Clayton from assistant chief to chief. And as treasurer in 1997, Velasco made an issue of a $1,082 CD changer that the Police Department bought and had installed in the chief's car.

"I think the fact that I threw my hat back in the ring for City Council was a big factor [in the arrest]," Velasco said Wednesday.

The transcript shows that Clayton's possible political motivation came up during pretrial questioning. Ankeny testified June 10 that he had no indication his boss harbored a personal grudge against Velasco, but said Clayton "is perhaps more political than most police administrators."

When asked if he ever got the feeling the chief was out to get Velasco, Ankeny testified that Clayton never said so directly. But, the assistant chief added, "I think the relationship over the years might see that to be a possibility."

Cichy wouldn't comment Wednesday but is to testify July 16.

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