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Guards Union Accused in Probe

Complaint alleges that the labor group blocked an investigation into alleged inmate beatings.

June 03, 2003|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Two veteran internal affairs investigators for the state Department of Corrections charged Monday that the state prison guards' union used its influence to block their investigation into charges that officers at Chino state prison beat five inmates a year ago.

The investigators were looking into allegations that the inmates "were attacked and beaten by a group of staff members" early last May. The complaint says the inmates were "in full restraints" when the incident occurred.

According to the complaint, the Chino guards were retaliating for a fight earlier in the day between prisoners and correctional officers near one of the sprawling prison's cafeterias.

In their complaint, investigators Robert Maldonado and Richard Feaster charge that the investigation was stymied when the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. convinced state Corrections Director Edward Alameida to order that they turn over taped interviews with inmates to the suspects' union representatives.

The investigators balked at what they said was a rule that would jeopardize their investigation, and turned to state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's office for help.

Lockyer's office took control of the probe. But according to the complaint, the state Department of Justice "failed to actively pursue the investigation" because of pressure from the guards' union.

No specifics were given as to the pressure allegedly applied on the attorney general. Lockyer's office denied that its investigation was hindered.

"I can tell you this: We did the best investigation we could under the circumstances," said Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin.

Union officials denied that their intervention disrupted the investigation.

Barankin said the attorney general's office turned over its findings a month ago to the San Bernardino County district attorney to make a decision about whether to file charges. Prosecutors are still reviewing the matter, a spokeswoman said Monday.

The investigators filed their complaint with the state Board of Control as a prelude to bringing a lawsuit against the state.

The five-page document says the officers have suffered "damage to career and reputation" and "potential elimination of job and/or punitive job transfer." Their allegations are expected to become a focus of a legislative hearing later this month.

"They were just doing their job," said San Francisco lawyer John H. Scott, who represents Maldonado and Feaster.

"They're a hair's breadth away from having their jobs eliminated and probably having their careers ruined because they're being identified as whistle-blowers. They haven't been willing to roll over and let a criminal investigation be pushed under the carpet."

Jobs Are at Stake

Maldonado and Feaster brought the complaint after the union, suggesting ways to pare back prison spending to help close the state's $38-billion budget gap, recommended earlier this year that lawmakers in Sacramento cut 51 positions from the Office of Investigative Services.

In his revised budget issued last month, Gov. Gray Davis proposed a smaller cut. But under the governor's proposal, the state would close the Rancho Cucamonga branch of the Office of Investigative Services, where Maldonado and Feaster work. Such a move would eliminate 16 positions and save $956,000 in the coming fiscal year. The Legislature is considering the issue.

Prison spokesman Russ Heimerich labeled as "poppycock" any suggestion that the Rancho Cucamonga office has been slated for closure because of the union's influence. A branch office in Bakersfield would become responsible for internal affairs investigations at Southern California prisons.

"When this gets litigated, I think we'll find some aspects of this complaint to be without merit," Heimerich said.

Lance Corcoran, a top executive in the prison officers union, also dismissed allegations in the complaint.

"It is whining on their part," he said. "They're not doing their job adequately. So they blame" the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

The complaint raises new questions about the union's contract approved last year by Davis and the Legislature. In addition to boosting prison officers' pay by as much as 37% over its five-year life, the pact contains an expansion of a requirement that internal affairs investigators turn over to their targets any audio and video recordings of interviews with inmate witnesses.

Some other law enforcement agencies offer similar protections to their officers accused of wrongdoing. Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with administrative wrongdoing, for instance, are entitled to read the statements gathered against them in the course of an investigation.

According to their complaint, Maldonado and Feaster obtained statements from inmates and prison staff members. The union, acting on behalf of the guards suspected of wrongdoing, requested copies of the inmate statements. Maldonado and Feaster refused.

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