Last month, hours before city hall closed for the holidays on Dec. 22, the city of Westminster released an explosive complaint written by its former police chief, Kevin Baker.
The 14-page document – made public only after a year-long public records lawsuit by Voice of OC – describes a city council that Baker said operates like a “gang,” pushing for police enforcement against certain businesses to punish political enemies and using city resources to enrich themselves and political allies.
Because of high interest in the article, and the city’s large population of Vietnamese American residents, Voice of OC translated its Dec. 22 news story and the entire 14-page complaint into Vietnamese.
“Given the explosive nature of the police chief’s allegations against the council members, and out of respect to Westminster’s large Vietnamese community, Voice of OC took the extra step of translating the complaint into Vietnamese, in order to ensure all local taxpayers have access to the raw documents behind the controversy,” said Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana, Jr.
“Public engagement is a key part of our mission as a nonprofit newsroom, and in today’s Orange County, language diversity is an important part of that effort. As such, we are always striving to provide more translated content into languages like Vietnamese and Spanish and to invite community members to help us do more.”
Among the claims made in his complaint, Baker accused Councilwoman Margie Rice of working with a former city maintenance worker and Midway Sanitary District director, Frank Cobo, to sabotage the city’s defense of a federal discrimination lawsuit.
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 claimed Mayor Tri Ta and former Councilman Andy Quach would report certain businesses –political supporters of a rivaling councilmember — for violations of their conditional use permit.
“When action was taken at each, the corresponding elected official would ask why are you going after his friend’s business,” Baker wrote.
Councilman Sergio Contreras is accused of pushing city staff to fix a water leak on a private residential property to benefit a friend.
Baker also wrote that Councilman Tyler Diep, who has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from local casinos, pushed for relaxed enforcement on buses sent to Westminster to pick up casino patrons.
Current councilmembers have been quick to denounce Baker and his claims.
The morning after publication, Rice responded to the article by blaming her city council colleagues for settling with Baker without allowing her and her lawyer 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.”
Contreras, who said he had not read Baker’s complaint, called the allegations about him “absurd half-truths.”
“It was a ransom note, he was looking for a payday,” Contreras said. “And everyone got smeared.”
Although Mayor Tri Ta and Councilman Tyler Diep, who is running for state Assembly, did not return calls from Voice of OC, both officials spoke with the Vietnamese language newspaper Nguoi Viet Daily News five days later.
Neither Ta nor Diep directly addressed the accusations made against them. They characterized the lawsuit as largely a dispute between Rice and Baker.
Ta said an earlier draft of the complaint focused largely on Rice, but then Baker’s lawyer changed tactics, adding information about the rest of the council to gain leverage.
Ta said he had heard Baker tell various people about his issues with Rice, but this was the first time he officially complained.
Diep questioned why Baker waited until retirement to complain about misconduct.
Baker, however, repeatedly writes in his claim that he reported incidents to the city manager, FBI, and state ethics officials.
“In the complaint, Mr. Baker brings up a lot of issues with Rice, knows she is doing wrong, but he still ignores it,” Diep told Nguoi Viet. “For example, when IT staff is asked to repair her computer, Baker knows it’s wrong, but he still lets them do it. Remember, IT is under the authority of the police department. One other example, he says that Rice demanded she take a police car to do her own business, which is obviously wrong, but he still let it happen.”
Speaking with Nguoi Viet, Ta pledged that the city council would take action on any future formal complaints and that he would personally work to make sure similar situations don’t arise in the future. He also said he would support term limits for the city council.
Former city councilwoman Diana Carey, who served one term from 2012 to 2016, defended Baker in a comment on Voice of OC’s Dec. 22 article and later in interviews with reporters.
“What they’re saying about the chief is wrong. He wasn’t out to fleece the city. He was there to make things better,” Carey said in an interview last Thursday.
Carey said she spoke to Baker’s lawyer and was prepared to join a lawsuit had it gone to court.
“On several occasions my words from closed session were quoted back to me by members of the public. The leaking of closed session discussions have had a detrimental effect on the outcome of legal issues, and have been very damaging to employee morale throughout the city,” Carey wrote in her comment.
The former councilwoman, who was defeated in her bid for re-election in Nov. 2016, said she does not plan to run again.
Carey said she witnessed several instances where Rice intimidated employees and said Rice routinely threatened to fire people who angered her.
The city council constantly micromanaged and interfered in administration, Carey said, which had a damaging effect on morale among employees.
“The morale is terrible…and it has been for a long time. It makes it very difficult to do your job, when you’re always looking over your shoulder,” Carey said. “And they don’t deserve that.”
Carey said she wants the city to “move forward” and believes a transition to district elections, the elimination of a directly elected mayor, and term limits would increase accountability for the city council.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.