Cmdr. Cameron Knauerhaze, a top-ranking Westminster Police Department administrator, is claiming the city ignored a culture of wrongdoing under former police chief Ralph Ornelas.
He is the fourth department employee, and highest ranking, to level wrongdoing allegations against Ornelas this year, and to claim that the city did nothing despite numerous complaints.
Knauerhaze, in a 17-page legal claim obtained by Voice of OC, describes Ornelas as “a man with anger issues” who abused public funds, passed qualified officers over for promotions, condoned misconduct in the workplace, and handled internal disputes with a “mafia”-like persona.
Ornelas did not respond to requests for comment.
“It is unfortunate that Commander Knauerhaze has resorted to smearing well-respected law enforcement officials in the hopes of a financial windfall,” said a statement by Irma Moisa, an outside attorney hired by the city to handle litigation resulting from the claims.
She added that the city “welcomes the opportunity” to defend itself in court.
Knauerhaze and three other police officers, Jose Flores, Matthew Edinger and Ryan Fletcher, will file formal lawsuits as early as this week, according to their lawyer. The city rejected all four of their claims on June 4.
But where Flores, Edginger and Fletcher are rank-and-file officers, Knauerhaze is in charge of the department’s Professional Standards Unit, which oversees internal affairs investigations into suspected illegal activity and misconduct by fellow officers.
He was the department’s official spokesman before that.
“Former Chief Ornelas promoted the best qualified candidates to Deputy Chief,” Moisa said in her statement. “The promotional decisions had nothing to do with any of Commander Knauerhaze’s sensationalized claims.”
Attorney Dennis Wagner, who’s representing all four department employees, said “the city will waste thousands of dollars defending itself.”
“I’m hopeful that some of the lawsuits spur more city employees to come forward,” he said in a phone interview.
Including the four officers who plan to sue, Wagner has represented at least eight employees — spanning multiple city departments — bringing legal challenges against the city over the last several years.
City Manager Eddie Manfro announced Ornelas’ retirement on April 29, amid an outside investigation into the former chief that began in February over possible “policy violations” and concluded with findings that are still secret despite numerous requests for them by Voice of OC.
The investigation into Ornelas began when Knauerhaze complained to the city’s Human Resources Department, according to Knauerhaze’s claim. Ornelas was put on paid administrative leave on Feb. 17.
“There’s a reason the chief retired,” Wagner said. “Presumably because the (investigation) sustained many of the allegations against him.”
Mark Lauderback, who served as Ornelas’ deputy chief, is filling in as acting chief, according to Manfro.
Knauerhaze and Edinger both describe Lauderback as loyal to Ornelas, and Edinger in his claim went as far as accusing Lauderback of continuing “the harassment and hostile work environment” in the department.
Moisa, responding on behalf of Lauderback, called the claims about him “ludicrous.”
Knauerhaze’s claim also details separate instances in which Ornelas allegedly made racist jokes and remarks about employees’ racial and religious backgrounds in front of them.
Ornelas became chief of the department three years after Jose Flores and two other Latino officers, Brian Perez and Ryan Reyes, won a $3.4 million judgment in 2014 in a federal racial discrimination lawsuit against the department.
That year, 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.
“This department has never resolved past issues of retaliation and discrimination,” Knauerhaze’s claim reads.
Abuse of Public Resources
Knauerhaze in his claim accuses Ornelas of abusing police department resources on more than one occasion.
In one instance, Ornelas allegedly spent $3,000 in police department money to have his windows tinted because he “thought his office was too bright.”
Knauerhaze in his claim called the spending “poor judgment” for a police chief of a city that had passed a one-cent sales tax increase the year before to balance a city budget cash-strapped in part by public safety pension costs.
On another occasion that same year, Ornelas invited 12 department employees out to dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant in San Diego, according to Knauerhaze’s claim.
Knauerhaze later discovered that Ornelas paid for the dinner, which cost $500, with his city credit card and hid the expense in a section of the department’s budget that pays for employee training.
Ornelas also hid expenses for a golf tournament in the same report, according to the claim.
“No WPD employee has ever been allowed to charge a golf tournament to the police budget,” the claim reads.
Knauerhaze also alleges that when the police department conducted active shooter training at nearby schools, Ornelas tried to sell school staff members a product that locks classroom doors — “a clear ethics violation under department policy.”
“This product was invented by (Ornelas’) friend,” the claim reads, adding that when Knauerhaze inquired about it, Ornelas “got nervous and took the crowd to a different location to continue the discussion of the product.”
The incident even prompted concern from Lauderback that day, according to the claim, who whispered to Knauerhaze “He can’t do that, is he really pitching his friend’s product?”
Nepotism and Retaliation
Knauerhaze also accuses Ornelas of rushing to hire the son-in-law of a deputy chief and close confidante of his, Chris Branuelas.
Branuelas did not respond to requests for comment.
“Many corners were cut to make this happen, including the performance of an incomplete background investigation and putting (Branuelas’ son-in-law) on payroll before the start of the academy so he could study,” Knauerhaze’s claim reads.
Knauerhaze in his claim says he’s “never seen anything like this before at WPD.”
“Keep in mind, Chris Branuelas is Ralph’s best friend,” who “makes several decisions for the Chief and many in the command staff know (Ornelas) could not do his job without him,” the claim reads.
It adds: “The Chief ignores others’ opinions on matters and instead runs his issues through Branuelas.”
Amid the fallout of the outside investigation into Ornelas, Knauerhaze claims City Hall is “punishing” him and his staff at the Professional Standards Unit, “since some of them were also witnesses” during the investigation.
The city’s Human Resources Department has even shunned Knauerhaze’s staff and no longer takes their calls, which sometimes involve “important matters affecting all (police department) employees,” according to the claim.
“The City continues to engage in retaliatory behavior toward Knauerhaze because he exposed wrongdoing within the department,” the claim reads.
Knauerhaze also claims he’s been shut out of meetings and conversations that concern his duties in the department.
In one instance, he claims he was left in the dark about the return of a police employee on administrative leave, and that an unknown member of command staff entered Knauerhaze’s locked office, removed the officer’s badge and gun, and returned it to the officer without Knauerhaze’ s knowledge.
“This is not normal,” the claim reads, adding that department employees “should not be able to freely enter” Knauerhaze’s “locked office where sensitive materials are located.”
Knauerhaze in his complaint says his allegations don’t “scratch the surface on other complaints currently manifesting against Ornelas by other WPD employees.”
And many of the witnesses to Knauerhaze’s complaints “are on promotional lists and may fear retaliation if they testify against” Ornelas, the claim says.
“Many employees are intimidated to come forward.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.