Three Westminster Police Officers File More Bullying and Retaliation Claims

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

The Westminster Police Department.

The Westminster Police Department fostered a culture of bullying and retaliation for years under former police chief Ralph Ornelas, three police officers allege in separate legal claims filed against the city.

The claims by officers Jose Flores, Matthew Edinger and Ryan Fletcher describe a department in “turmoil,” where officers who speak out against higher-ups are denied promotions and are subjected to internal affairs investigations as part of a “beatdown” tactic to prevent them from reporting illegal activity.

“The City denies the allegations and is prepared to defend itself vigorously,” said Irma Moisa, an outside attorney hired by the city to investigate the officers’ claims, in an email. “The claims are brought by Officers who are unwilling to accept the Department’s legitimate promotional selections, and who are unwilling to accept the Department’s obligation to conduct internal affairs investigations when there are concerns of misconduct.”

Moisa called the complaints “simply an effort to win compensation and promotions via the litigation process.”

The officer’s claims are the first step toward possible lawsuits, which could pile more legal fees on a city struggling with payouts to numerous former employees. The city has 45 days to respond to the claims, which were filed May 3 by the officers’ attorney Dennis Wagner, before the officers can file their lawsuits. The three officers’ claims mean there have been at least 10 employee legal challenges filed against the city since 2011.

Among those challenges, Wagner has represented at least four other employees: former housing coordinator Tami Piscotty, former police officer Brian Perez, former police chief Kevin Baker and former city clerk Robin Roberts.

Wagner, said over the phone that if the officers sue, “they’re probably going to seek monetary remedies while continuing to do their jobs.”

Fletcher and Edinger, in their complaints, say they were passed over numerous times for promotions to sergeant in favor of less qualified or less experienced officers. In one case, according to the claims, a promoted Sgt. Phuong Pham was under a 2013 FBI corruption investigation that wrapped up with an “unknown” outcome.

Moisa would not comment on the FBI investigation, citing Pham’s “privacy rights.”

Fletcher and Edinger in their complaints say they were denied promotions because they spoke out against Ornelas and other supervisors either on the promotion selection process or misconduct in the workplace.

Flores and Edinger also claim they were “dragged” into an internal investigation of an officer accused of two domestic violence incidents with his spouse.

And Flores, who won part of a $3.4 million federal judgement in 2014 after winning a lawsuit against the city for racial discrimination, alleges department higher-ups retaliated against him and mishandled investigations into two separate DUI incidents that Flores responded to in 2017. One involved a Westminster Police Department intern, and the other involved a Garden Grove Police Officer.

Click here to read the officers’ claims: Flores | Edinger | Fletcher

City Manager Eddie Manfro announced Ornelas’ retirement in an internal email on April 29, amid an outside investigation into Ornelas that began in February over possible “policy violations.”

The city hasn’t said what policy violations are under investigation, nor has it said who is conducting the investigation. Ornelas had been on administrative leave since Feb. 17.

Flores and two other Latino officers, Brian Perez and Ryan Reyes, won a $3.4 million judgment in 2014 after a federal jury found they were denied assignments and promotions that were instead given to less qualified officers, and were retaliated against by previous police chiefs for filing complaints.

The jury decision was largely upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ornelas became chief in March 2017 and was the city’s fifth police chief in eight years, succeeding Kevin Baker, who retired in May 2016 after filing a 14-page complaint painting a picture of a city where council members used police enforcement on certain businesses for political leverage.

The city has denied Baker’s allegations, though it settled his claim for $500,000.

Deputy Chief Mark Lauderback has temporarily taken Ornelas’ place, according to Manfro. Edinger’s claim describes Lauderback as a “shill” loyal to Ornelas, who has “continued the harassment and hostile work environment” in the department.

Moisa, responding on behalf of Lauderback, called the claims about him “ludicrous and made by an attorney who does not know him or his record of integrity and who is simply trying to sow dissension to get his clients’ claims covered in the newspapers.”

“I am confident the members of the Police Department do not appreciate these tactics and do not agree with this despicable allegations against Chief Lauderback,” she added.

Edinger’s complaint also details instances in which Ornelas made inappropriate comments on his appearance, which Edinger says he took in sexual fashion.

“These and other issues were brought to the attention of the Department and then HR,” his claim reads.

Outside the police department, the city is also facing a workplace discrimination lawsuit filed in county court on April 24 by Eliyahu Cortez Levy, a Jewish city employee.

Levy, who began at the city as a water technician in 2011, claims the city ignored his repeated complaints of racist behavior and mistreatment by coworkers, and that he was the victim of repeated anti-Semitic and anti-Latino slurs.

“The provocative claims made in (Levy’s) lawsuit were only raised recently, and (Levy) has refused to participate in the City’s investigation,” Moisa said. “Once the investigation is complete, the City will, once again, take appropriate corrective action, if warranted.”

Levy is represented by civil rights and employment attorney James DeSimone in Marina del Rey.

Click here to read Levy’s lawsuit filing.

Domestic Violence Investigation

Flores and Edinger in their claims say they were wrongfully swept up in an internal investigation into a fellow officer, Miguel Gradilla, over two alleged domestic violence incidents with his spouse.

Flores in his claim recounts being called as a witness in July, 2018 during an investigation into Gradilla and being interviewed by Lauderback and Commander Ralph Branuelos about an incident where Gradilla was allegedly violent with his spouse during a party thrown by off-duty officers.

Gradilla did not respond to requests for comment.

“I told them that I did not party with any of the boys off-duty but the information was well known around the station that Gradilla struck his wife and several co-workers held him down to stop him,” Flores says in his claim, adding that he told Lauderback and Branuelos they “had to stop giving Gradilla special treatment because he is part of the ‘good old boys’ in the department.”

Edinger in his claim says he was punished for speaking with fellow officer Malcolm Pierson about Gradilla’s first alleged domestic violence incident, in which Pierson said he witnessed and intervened in Gradilla allegedly choking his spouse.

Edinger said he encouraged Pierson, at the direction of a deputy chief, to tell the truth about what he saw. Later that year, Edinger’s claim says he was put under investigation for an unknown reason and ultimately suspended by Ornelas in November for 87.5 hours for talking to Pierson.

Special Treatment and DUI Investigations

Flores in his claim gives a firsthand account of two separate DUI incidents he responded to in 2017, one on May 10 involving a Garden Grove Police Officer and one on Oct. 7 involving an intern in the Westminster Police Department. In both instances, Flores alleges his supervisors either delayed the investigations or instead turned the heat on him.

On May 10, Flores said he and a fellow officer responded to a traffic collision involving an intoxicated driver — identified by dispatch as a Garden Grove Police officer — near the Westminster-Garden Grove border. Flores says he and the other Westminster officer left the scene after determining it wasn’t their jurisdiction.

Two days after the incident, Flores says he was called into his department’s Professional Standards Unit, where he claims a supervisor, Commander Michael Chapman, told him the Garden Grove officers on scene had driven the officer home that day and had done no investigation — “swept it under the rug.”

After higher-ups in the Garden Grove Police Department found out about the DUI incident two days later, “(Chapman) said Garden Grove admin called WPD to find out why we had not taken the traffic collision and … believed it was in our jurisdiction,” Flores writes.

Flores said Chapman and Mark Lauderback, backed by Ornelas, began an investigation into Flores’ work performance during the collision response, citing pressure by Garden Grove to look into it. Flores in his claim says the investigation violated his police officer rights.

“Chapman and Ornelas kept me on investigation for over 10 months,” reads Flores’ claim, despite Chapman allegedly refusing to show Flores any documentation of the Garden Grove Police Department’s inquiry into his handling of the incident.

Five months later on Oct. 7, Flores says he was dispatched to a DUI collision involving Jorge Escobar, an intern at the Professional Standards Unit working with Chapman.

“Knowing my work always gets scrutinized, (Cpl. Andy Stowers) volunteered to take over the investigation,” Flores’ claim reads. That was when Flores said Sgt. Scott Gump arrived on scene and called Chapman, who allegedly gave Gump directions as to how to handle the investigation.

Gump and Escobar did not respond to requests for comment.

“Gump mentioned that Chapman did not want Escobar booked at Orange County if he was to be arrested for the DUI,” and “told (California Highway Patrol) he would call another agency to complete the investigation.”

Flores claims Gump called the Seal Beach Police Department to the scene, who “surprisingly” did not arrest Escobar.

“Seeing that Escobar was getting special treatment from Commander Chapman and Sgt. Gump, and the investigation was being intentionally delayed while Escobar metabolized the alcohol,” Flores wrote, “I did not go near the area.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.