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Corruption runs rampant in the city of Westminster, claims former Police Chief Kevin Baker, alleging council members operate like a “gang,” and try to use the police to pressure local businesses and punish political enemies.

The explosive internal claim was filed by Baker against the city and released on the evening of Friday, Dec. 22 to Voice of OC as the result of a public records lawsuit Voice of OC won in November against the city. For more than a year, the city fought the disclosure of the 14-page complaint, which was filed in April 2016.

The city will pay $120,000 in attorney’s fees to Voice of OC’s lawyer, Kelly Aviles as a result of losing the law suit.

“I hope this judgment serves as a reminder to every single public official in Orange County that this newsroom has the legal and financial ability to aggressively enforce its constitutionally protected First Amendment rights for public documents,” said Voice of OC publisher Norberto Santana, Jr. “In short, when you get a call from Voice of OC, give it up. It belongs to the public.”

“You are wasting precious taxpayer resources as an elected official when you back schemes to delay or prevent release. We don’t seek confrontation, only compliance,” Santana said. “Yet we don’t go away and we won’t settle away public rights to transparency.”

The city settled Baker’s claim for $500,000 and required him to sign a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement.

In a brief statement, City Manager Eddie Manfro maintained an argument the city made in court — that Baker’s claim was never filed officially with the city, because it was not signed.

“Mr. Baker’s ever-evolving allegations were nothing more than an effort to smear the reputation of public officials and extract $10 million from the City’s taxpayers,” Manfro said. “Mr. Baker never provided any substantiation for his allegations and chose instead to settle with the city for a fraction of this amount. The City has moved forward.”

The claim is a catalog of alleged illegal activity witnessed or recounted by the former police chief, and paints a picture of a city in which council members push for police enforcement against certain businesses to punish political enemies and use city resources to enrich themselves and political allies.

Baker wrote that he reported incidents to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state Fair Political Practices Commission throughout his time as chief.  The FBI and FPPC could not be reached Friday night. 

The complaint accuses Councilwoman Margie Rice of leaking closed session discussions to her ally – a city maintenance worker and Midway Sanitary District board member Frank Cobo – to sabotage the city in a major federal discrimination lawsuit against the city and four of its police chiefs (including Baker).

Cobo was allegedly caught snooping on computers in the Information Technology (IT) Department, looking at discovery documents for the federal trial, prompting officials to cut off his access to parts of the building, Baker claims.

Baker’s complaint also lists a number of ways Rice allegedly used public resources to benefit herself – from allegations that she often calls on the police department to drive her to public and private events, her use of the city IT department to fix her personal computer, to demanding free service from the local Elmore Toyota dealership.

On Saturday morning after publication, Rice said the city council denied her an opportunity to defend herself before they settled the claim with Baker, saying she and her attorney were not allowed to attend closed sessions discussing the claim.

“The council settled with him, he went off, and they smeared and slandered me,” Rice said. “I’m going to have my attorney file a suit against them [the city council].”

She declined to discuss specific allegations but said Baker’s claim was full of “nothing but lies that he made up in order to get money.”

“This council believed him, and they paid him off, and smeared me and tried to run me off the council and make me resign,” Rice said, noting that the claim was filed before the Nov. 2016 election. “When the people who voted me in tell me it’s time I’ll get off, but I won’t let this council run me off.”

Cobo did not answer requests for comment for this story.

Baker also recounted instances where council members would use the Police Department for political retribution.

“Mayor [Tri] Ta would call the police department and report that a night club, Q’s lounge, was violating the conditions of their Conditional Use Permit (CUP) and ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] violations,” Baker wrote. “Within a very short time period, we would receive a phone call from Councilman Andy Quach, who would report that a night club, Club Bleu, was violating the conditions of their Conditional Use Permit (CUP) and ABC violations.”

The two clubs are rivals on Beach Boulevard, with Bleu Restaurant and Dancing a supporter of Mayor Tri Ta, and Q’s Lounge a supporter of Quach, a former city councilman, according to the complaint.

Bleu Restaurant and Dancing has given Ta’s campaign at least $5,000 since 2007. A review of Quach’s campaign filings from 2000 to 2009 did not show any donations from Q’s Lounge, which is now closed.

“When action was taken at each, the corresponding elected official would ask why are you going after his friend’s business,” Baker wrote.

Ta and Quach did not immediately return calls for comment.

In February 2013, Baker said he received an email from Chet Simmons, the assistant city manager, saying Quach was upset about code enforcement at a store on Beach Boulevard.

“Councilman Quach was rumored to be receiving political donations from the owner and has asked me for special favors for the location since the opening,” Baker wrote. “Councilman Quach contacted me to ‘take it easy on the business, he’s a good guy.’ I refused.”

The former police chief said Councilman Tyler Diep also frequently lobbies the department to relax enforcement on local casinos, which regularly send buses to pick up customers in residential neighborhoods and commercial lots.

“The residents claimed noise, traffic congestion, and safety issues related to the buses,” Baker wrote. “Armed robberies had even occurred related to the casino buses.”

Diep has received $8,000 in campaign contributions from local casinos since 2014.

Meanwhile, former Councilwoman Diana Carey would push for tighter enforcement on the casino buses.

“So once again we have Council members battling the same issue using the police department to achieve an opposing outcome,” Baker wrote. “Of course when one side is not satisfied it is reflected upon the Chief and the Department and is a basis for ongoing and sustained retaliation.”

Diep also did not immediately return a call for comment.

In 2014, city staff raised concerns about city resources being used to fix a water leak on a private residential property – owned by a friend of Councilman Sergio Contreras, Baker wrote.

Contreras, who said Friday night he has not read Baker’s complaint, called the allegations about him “absurd half-truths.”

Contreras said a resident came to a city council meeting complaining about a water leak that had caused significant damage,  and asked for the city’s help because his landlord was unresponsive.

“It was a ransom note, he was looking for a payday,” Contreras said of Baker’s complaint. “And everyone got smeared.”

The claim also raises ethical questions about the city’s attorney, Richard Jones, whose firm Jones and Mayer represented the city in fighting disclosure of the claim to Voice of OC.

Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Westminster City Council conducts city business during a meeting in the Council Chambers on Wednesday, June 28, 2017. JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Baker compared the “corruption and cronyism” in Westminster to the city of Bell, a small South Los Angeles County city now infamous for its public corruption after the Los Angeles Times revealed lavish salaries and benefits for a number of top officials.

But corruption by the Westminster City Council is more subtle, Baker wrote, with a “secretive and oppressive” culture that uses “threats, intimidation and revenge on employees and citizens who dare speak out or challenge them.”

He lamented the corruption in a community “largely made up of vulnerable refugees from Vietnam who escaped the oppressive police controlled communist government, to only have it potentially replicated again here in Little Saigon.”

Read the full claim.

Margie Rice

Councilwoman Margie Rice’s official city portrait.

Much of the Baker’s complaint features councilwoman Margie Rice, who has been a fixture in a number of employee claims filed against the city in recent years.

Rice, who was elected to the City Council in 1994, has also been elected mayor six times.

“Nearly every City Manager that has dealt with Margie Rice has considered her a major disruption for personnel issues. Having 10 City Managers in 14 years, they all know their demise begins with Margie, so Margie Rice is catered to and given extreme privilege and power to keep her happy,” Baker wrote. “When she erupts, everyone hides and looks for ways to placate her.”

Baker claimed Rice had threatened to fire him, and other city employees, on multiple occasions, in part for supplying information to the FBI.

He claims Rice repeatedly brought up the 2011 arrest of her son, Robert Curtis Rice, who was charged by Westminster Police with stalking and making criminal threats. Those charges later were dismissed.

“Margie then stated that she wanted the Detective (Alan Aoki) and others who prepared the police reports against her son fired,” Baker wrote. “She then threatened me saying, ‘I can get rid of you and I’ll get the votes.’”

Baker claims the city’s Information Technology (IT) department repeatedly made accommodations for Rice — from unrestricting certain websites so that Rice could do internet shopping on city networks and repairing Rice’s personal computer, to giving network access to a non-city employee so that person could help Rice read her emails.

While repairing Rice’s computer in July 2014, two female IT workers saw “large amounts of pornography…and were offended,” Baker wrote. “I was told that Dick Jones had told the City Manager that it was appropriate for City resources to be used on her personal computer.”

Baker said he met with Jones, the city attorney, and Eddie Manfro, the city manager, to complain about Rice’s treatment of him. “If you don’t like it here, you can quit,” Jones allegedly said to Baker.

The “Most Powerful Janitor I Have Ever Seen” 

Frank Cobo, who retired in 2016, watches a city council meeting.

City council members have relationships with line-level employees who report back to them on the activities and views of other employees, Baker wrote, relationships that were personal and extended outside the workplace.

“This intelligence gathering and loyalty gave line level employees vast informal power in the workplace and the ability to undermine supervisors, managers and department heads,” Baker wrote. “These employees enjoyed a protection that could be leverage [sic] against some of the highest positions in the City when needed.”

A prime example of that power was Cobo, who was one of Rice’s closest allies in City Hall.

“The personal and political relationship with Rice became closer over the years, as I began to see Frank at her political events, hanging her political signs, fundraising and outwardly supporting her on and off duty,” Baker wrote.

Baker claims that Cobo, who retired last year, would frequently boast about how he is “untouchable” and “no one can fuck with me.”

“He boasted on numerous occasions to me, how when the City Manager tried to affect him during the 2012 layoffs and other administrative matters, he said, ‘You see what happened Baker, I got his ass fired. Don’t fuck with this janitor…hey man…I’m just a lowly janitor,’” Baker wrote.

Cobo often would talk about the details of closed sessions, making it “very clear that Margie Rice would repeatedly tell him about closed sessions which violated the law,” the claim states.

Baker wrote he often would see Rice and Cobo alone in a conference room or by her car in the parking lot after meetings, and Cobo also was known to help Rice review city council packets before meetings.

The former police chief believed Cobo was feeding information he got from Rice in closed sessions to benefit three Latino police officers who in 2011 sued the department and four police chiefs, including Baker, for workplace discrimination.

“Our attorney’s [sic] at Liebert Cassidy and Whitmore could not figure out why the plaintiffs seemed to be one step ahead of us,” Baker said.

Amid the lawsuit, Cobo was caught in January 2014 in “the secure IT office by IT staff snooping through discovery documents for the federal trial,” prompting officials to curtail his access to the IT office, according to Baker’s complaint.

The City’s Own Lawyer

Richard D. Jones at a city council meeting in Westminster. Credit: Thy Vo

Baker’s claim also listed several of his concerns about the city attorney, Richard Jones, who is sometimes called the “sixth councilman” according to Baker’s claim.

Voice of OC reported in Dec. 2015 that Jones arranged a scheme to receive a state pension and reimburse the city for its costs, despite not being eligible for a pension. After Voice of OC’s story, the state pension system, known as CalPERS, reversed more than 22 years in pension payments from Jones. 

According to Baker, city staff have long been concerned about billing by attorneys for Jones’ firm, Jones & Mayer.

“Attorneys that would be prosecuting Municipal code violations would bill for driving to the scene where the investigations took place. The attorneys would then shift and send things back and forth to each other, billing for all reviews,” Baker wrote.

“It seems that the attorneys take an extraordinary amount of time to make simple decisions on a contract and then to create a large bill,” Baker continued.

Baker claims Jones would offer city officials use of his condominium in Maui, Hawaii. Jones also offered Baker season seats to Dodgers and Angels baseball games, Baker claimed.

Jones’ firm also sponsored the Mayor’s Ball, state of the City luncheons, holiday parties and other events, Baker claims, with some Jones & Mayer staff members attending fundraisers and political campaigns.

“I believe that none of the FPPC filings or any 700 form filings reflect any freebies that Jones and his law firm provides to department heads and elected officials,” Baker wrote, referring to state-mandated economic disclosure forms that require officials to report gifts.

Baker also claimed in 2013 to have ended the practice of badges for city council members, a practice that he wrote dates back to 2005.

“I began to wonder why Council members have badges in the first place and after I saw them, I noticed they look identical to our police badges,” Baker said.

Baker noted that a 2007 California Attorney General opinion generally prohibits issuing badges resembling one held by a peace officer which could deceive “an ordinary reasonable person,” and that Jones’ firm wrote legal alerts on the subject.

“City Attorney Jones knew of this potentially illegal practice and did nothing which describes his hands off approach to letting counsel (Rice) get her way,” Baker wrote.

In October 2014, Baker said he was contacted by Assistant City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen “to answer questions so he can supply the information and talking points to Councilperson Rice for a campaign press event.”

“Obviously this is a misuse of the City Attorney’s time,” Baker wrote.

Baker claimed that he and others within the city are retaliated against for being whistleblowers.

“Those who complain within the City of illegal corruption are targeted and there are several others,” Baker wrote. “I expect to be viciously attacked by people mentioned herein but the truth lies in the facts and the facts show that these events have taken place.”

Baker’s attorney Dennis Wagner has represented a number of other city employees in legal claims and lawsuits against the city. Currently, he is representing two employees, Tami Piscotty and Brian Perez, in pending lawsuits.

“Ask how much the city pays defending lawsuits.  Ask how much the city pays the city attorney and his law firm,” Wagner said Friday night.  “The city wouldn’t have the litigation it does if it treated their employees fairly with a modicum of dignity and respect.  So contrary to what Eddie Manfro says, the city has not moved on.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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