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Fired Officer Is Rehired

South Gate: He was dismissed after tipping off drug suspects. Acting chief defends decision.

July 29, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

South Gate's new acting police chief has rehired an officer who, an appeals court found, tipped off two suspected drug dealers targeted in a federal investigation.

The officer, Taron Valentin, was fired by a previous police chief in 1996 after informing the suspects that their phones might have been bugged, according to the court. He also illegally gave one of the men a firearm, the court found.

Valentin, appointed two weeks ago by acting Police Chief Rick Lopez, now works patrol in this working-class city 12 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

For South Gate, a city awash in investigations of political corruption, the hiring has generated another round of controversy and increased tensions between the two police unions and the city's new chief. The unions also have been at odds with three members who make up the majority of the five-member City Council and have worked to recall all three. Lopez defended the hiring of Valentin--one of his first major moves as chief--saying he had acted on a directive from the City Council majority and acting City Manager Jesus Marez. He noted that Valentin had never been criminally charged.

"The bottom line is that the man is qualified to be a police officer," said Lopez, who took over the 98-member force four weeks ago.

But others, including fellow officers, see Valentin's hiring as a disturbing sign that Lopez is willing to jeopardize public safety in bowing to pressure from City Hall.

Since taking over, Lopez has disbanded the narcotics squad and demoted or reassigned several police union officials who have criticized the City Council.

The Valentin hiring follows a series of controversial moves authorized by the City Council, including the appointment of a convicted embezzler to be the trial specialist.

"It's a pattern of hiring under-qualified people, or people with dirty backgrounds," said Councilman Hector De La Torre, who opposed Valentin's reinstatement. "It's scary."

The FBI opened a South Gate investigation last year, subpoenaing Valentin's employment records. The nature and status of the probe is unclear, however. The FBI declined to comment.

The facts of Valentin's dismissal were detailed in March 2000 in a 14-page decision by a three-justice panel of the 2nd Appellate District in Los Angeles.

Valentin was a nine-year veteran working patrol in 1996 when he learned that the Drug Enforcement Administration suspected that two of his friends were involved in a drug-dealing operation.

Despite being told by superior officers not to tell the suspects, Valentin did so, informing them of the possible telephone-bugging and mentioning the DEA, wrote Justice Miriam A. Vogel.

The suspects were never charged, according to law enforcement sources.

After an internal investigation, Valentin was fired by then-Police Chief Ron George.

He was ordered reinstated by a civil service commission, which recommended that he be allowed to return to work after a one-year suspension. Valentin also sued the city, arguing that, as an African American, he had been the victim of racial discrimination.

But Valentin's firing was later upheld by the City Council and the appeals court, which had the final word on the matter.

The justices threw out Valentin's wrongful-termination lawsuit, saying there was insufficient evidence of discrimination.

Valentin "compromised an ongoing police investigation and, as he later admitted, may have placed the investigating officers at risk," the ruling said. "By Valentin's own admissions, he gave the chief of police and the police department good cause for his termination."

The appeals court also reversed a lower court order that Valentin be reinstated because the city had not observed a technicality in its termination procedure. The appeals court said it wasn't necessary to "order the members of the City Council to jump through more hoops in order to finalize a foregone conclusion."

It is not clear why authorities did not pursue criminal charges. Valentin could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Corey W. Glave, said prosecutors had concluded there was insufficient evidence.

Glave disputed many of the court's findings, saying they had been based on a flawed internal investigation by South Gate police. He said Valentin had been a longtime friend of the drug suspects but had never informed them of an investigation.

Valentin, Glave said, had given one of the men a handgun as a down payment for a home improvement project. But he said Valentin hadn't known that the man was a suspect, or that it was illegal to transfer a handgun without filling out the proper paperwork.

Valentin's quest to regain his job met with failure until a new City Council majority gained power in 2000. A few months later, in 2001, council members Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Raul Moriel and Maria Benavides voted to place Valentin back on the city payroll. Ruvalcaba, who is also mayor, said a "hidden agenda" had been behind Valentin's termination, citing racism allegations that were dismissed by the appeals court.

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