Two Santa Maria Police Department lieutenants claim they and Dan Ast faced retaliation from former and current supervisors for filing complaints alleging corruption and safety issues in the agency.
Tuesday marked the seventh and final day of testimony in the arbitration hearing for Ast, a fired police lieutenant who is seeking to get his job back.
Ast was fired in March 2013 for his role in the fatal shooting of Officer Albert Covarrubias on Jan. 28, 2012, as his colleagues tried to arrest him for having a sexual relationship with a teen girl who was part of the department’s Explorer Scout program.
Days before the fatal shooting, Lt. Norm Comé, Lt. James Ginter and Ast filed a complaint with a city human resources representative after unsuccessfully taking their concerns to then-chief, Danny Macagni, in November 2011.
“There were things going on that were illegal,” said Ginter, who still serves in the department. “There were things that were going on that were unsafe. They posed risk to not only our employees but citizens we’re supposed to be serving.”
The three veteran police officers in April filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.
Comé and Ginter testified about their concerns under both the current and former police chiefs Tuesday, but much of the rebuttal occurred behind closed doors because it involved personnel matters.
However, in a written statement, Chief Ralph Martin refuted “all unsupported allegations of misconduct.” City officials said they couldn’t provide any specifics because of the officers’ rights to privacy under the Police Officers Bill of Rights.
In testifying, the two lieutenants told of profanity directed at them, unanswered emails, less desirable schedules and more after they filed complaints against Macagni.
“The retaliation became worse immediately,” Ginter said of the actions against them upon filing the complaint at City Hall.
“The atmosphere went from bad to worse at the police station,” Ginter added. “The command staff ignoring us outright. Things being said. Things being done.”
He said he thinks Macagni was behind the actions.
“I believe he directed them to mess with us in any way that they could,” Ginter said.
As actions against them continued, Ginter said he emailed the complaint to Santa Maria City Council members.
“When they found out I had done this they were enraged,” said Ginter, who added he received a phone call at home from former Councilman Mike Cordero, a retired police lieutenant, who had just met with City Manager Rick Haydon and City Attorney Gil Trujillo.
In that call, Ginter said, Cordero told him, “They’re coming after you. They’re going to get you.”
Testimony Monday and Tuesday also mentioned the former police chief approaching the Police Officers Association board of directors, soliciting any complaints against the three lieutenants — or what Macagni allegedly called the three stooges.
“I felt this was another example of retaliatory actions, clearly.” Ginter said.
In all, the three officers found themselves the subjects of eight internal affairs investigations, which they claim came at the former chiefs and other supervisors' urging.
Ginter also told of getting a letter from the city confirming Macagni had retaliated against him. No specifics were given.
Comé, who is on medical leave, talked about about an incident involving an officer who didn’t show up to testify in court. When the public defender contacted him as watch commander, Comé said to go through the District Attorney’s Office, because the department has never accepted phone subpoenas.
“There was no complaint against me. I was morphed into the complaint on the back end because they saw an opportunity to come after me,” Comé said.
Comé said the trio approached the police chief as a group to air their grievances in November 2011.
“It was clear to us the chief was not happy with us,” Comé said.
Some of their complaints include a drunken reserve officer teaching newer officers about assault rifles, falsified timecards, ticket fixing and an “exorbitant amount” of overtime to the point it was a safety concern for officers and citizens.
“My concern was somebody was going to get on the motorcycle after a 20-hour shift and get killed,” Comé said.
A short time later, police commanders reassigned them, removing Ast from his role as chief of criminal investigations but making him responsible for completing investigators’ evaluations.
“How was he supposed to accomplish that based on your knowledge and training?” Ast’s attorney, Jonathan Miller, asked.
“That was one of our chief concerns. We voiced that with the chief and commander. It fell on deaf ears,” Comé said.
Under questioning by Dennis Gonzales, the city’s attorney, Comé and Ginter said the three had not taken their concerns to other local or federal law enforcement agencies.
Days after the shooting in a city employees meeting, Macagni put the blame for the shooting on Covarrubias, Comé said.
“It was made very clear Officer Covarrubias was responsible for the shooting,” Comé said.
Ginter supported Ast’s actions the night of the shooting.
“Had I been there I wouldn’t have changed anything,” Ginter said. “That man did nothing wrong.”
The city’s attorney completed his case just before the lunch break Tuesday, the seventh day of the arbitration hearing which began in early June.
Hearing officer Catherine Harris could make her decision within 60 days or longer. City officials said the decision is expected to be released no later than February.
If the hearing officer rules in favor of reinstating Ast, city leaders said they would follow protocol outlined in the official decision.