Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Personnel Squabble in Garcetti Regime Goes to U.S. Supreme Court
By ROGER M. GRACE
133rd in a Series
GIL GARCETTI’s administration as district attorney was plagued by allegations of vindictive reprisals against deputies who had come into disfavor, with the controversies aired at Civil Service Commission hearings and in court proceedings. One flap—involving demoralizing treatment, but with no evidence of direct involvement by Garcetti—reached the United States Supreme Court.
Another fray resulted in a settlement, approved by the Board of Supervisors.
●Richard Ceballos: An 11-year prosecutor was subjected to recriminations after writing a memo that alleged dishonesty on the part of sheriff’s deputies in obtaining a warrant.
Ceballos sued in federal court, claiming a civil rights violation. The case went to the top, with the U.S. Supreme Court on May 30, 2006, finding that no First Amendment violation had occurred. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, said:
“We hold that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”
While Ceballos did not have a sustainable action under 42 U.S.C. §1983, was he nonetheless, in fact, the victim of office retaliation?
The memo in question was written by him on March 2, 2000. It urged that a prosecution of three men for narcotics and weapons possession in the case of People v. Cuskey be scrapped because the affidavit by Deputy Keith Wall in support of the search warrant contained misstatements. He knew that from personally conducting an investigation, including going to the crime scene. In the memo, Ceballos came right out and accused Wall of perjury, and questioned the truthfulness of Deputies Daniel Spitulski and Murray Simpkins who had supplied information to Wall.
The recipient of the memo was the head deputy of the Pomona Branch, Frank Sundstedt, who had been assistant DA during Garcetti’s first term. Sundstedt instructed Ceballos to tone down the memo since it would have to be shared with the Sheriff’s Department, and Ceballos complied. At that point, Sundstedt and Carol Najera, a supervisor, were in agreement with Ceballos that the prosecution should be halted.
An acrimonious meeting with Sheriff’s Department representatives, including Wall, took place on March 9 in Sundstedt’s office, with one lieutenant accusing Ceballos of acting like a public defender and demanding he be ousted from the case. Sundstedt decided to go forward with the prosecution, and see what the outcome would be at a March 20 hearing on a defense motion to traverse the warrant. Having been subpoenaed, Ceballos testified at that hearing. (Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David S. Milton denied the motion.)
The statement of facts in the Jan. 30, 2002 opinion of Judge A. Howard Matz of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California is more illuminating than the recitation in the high court opinion. With citations to the record excised, and the spelling of Sundstedt’s name corrected, here’s what Matz found had occurred:
1. At the March 9, 2000 meeting, Defendants Sundstedt and Najera did not object in any manner to the request of a Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant that Plaintiff be removed from the Cuskey case.
2. On March 14, 2000, Defendant Sundstedt allegedly told Plaintiff that he would no longer be a calendar deputy at the Pomona branch and would be re-assigned as a trial deputy.
3. On March 15, 2000, Defendant Najera informed the plaintiff that one of his murder cases would be re-assigned to a lower level Deputy District Attorney.
4. On March 16, 2000, Plaintiff reiterated to Defendant Najera his belief that the Sheriff’s Department deputies had lied in the Cuskey matter. Thereupon, Defendant Najera verbally reprimanded and berated Plaintiff and told him that his actions and statements would get Plaintiff “in trouble with the District Attorney’s office.”
5. Following the Motion to Traverse hearing on March 20, 2000, Defendants Sundstedt and Najera did not assign any further murder cases to Plaintiff.
6. On August 25, 2000, Plaintiff was denied a promotion to Grade IV.
7. In late August and early September, Defendant Najera informed Plaintiff that he could not remain in the Pomona branch unless he agreed to filing misdemeanors. Plaintiff was given a choice of filing misdemeanors in Pomona or working as a felony-filing deputy in the El Monte branch. Because Plaintiff felt the Pomona position was demeaning, he did not choose between the two offers and was transferred to the El Monte branch on September 5, 2000.
According to the record in the case, Ceballos outlined these events at an Oct. 3, 2000, meeting of the Mexican American Bar Assn., prompting MABA’s president to telephone Garcetti to express his concerns. On Oct. 5, Ceballos’s departmental grievance was denied.
He then brought his civil rights action in federal court, suing also for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendants were Garcetti, Sundstedt, Najera, and the county. An Oct. 19 article in the Los Angeles Times reports:
“Sundstedt said the complaint is timed to damage Garcetti’s bid for reelection, a charge that Ceballos denies.”
Ceballos, still a DDA, is now back in Pomona. He says he doesn’t know to what extent Garcetti might have been involved in the actions taken against him. The deputy recounts that when Garcetti was deposed, there were “a lot” of “I don’t recall” and “I don’t recollect” responses from the DA.
He does attribute to Garcetti the decision not to promote him, noting: “All promotions have to be made by him—and all decisions not to promote.”
An opinion of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which the high court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos reverses) mentions these allegations by Ceballos:
“Najera ‘threatened’ him when he told her that he would testify truthfully at the hearing; ... at the hearing itself Najera was ‘rude and hostile’ to him; ... Sundstedt ‘gave [him] the silent treatment’....”
Ceballos tells me that the two actions by him which appeared to most anger Sundstedt and Najera were telling the former, following the March 9 meeting, that he was “kowtowing to the Sheriff’s Department,” and resisting pressures from Najera to be an uncooperative witness.
“She never came out and said, ‘Rich, I want you to lie.’ She’s stupid, but not that stupid.’ “
As phrased in his respondent’s brief in the U.S. Supreme Court: “Najera called Ceballos into her office and made a veiled threat of reprisal if he insisted on testifying candidly at the hearing.”
Sundstedt, now in private practice with his son, has been unavailable for comment in conjunction with the columns on Garcetti. However, the Dec. 28, 2000, issue of L.A. Weekly quotes him as saying:
“‘Ceballos was never dissuaded from testifying at the search-warrant hearing, or threatened with retaliation. Nor did he ever accuse me and Carol of ‘kowtowing’ to the Sheriff’s Department. Those are just more of his lies.”
Najera in 2004 ran unsuccessfully for the Los Angeles Superior Court. The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. rated her “not qualified.”
Ceballos discloses that he provided input to the ratings committee.
●Monika Blodgett: She was unlike Garcetti. He was political in the way he ran his office; she plainly lacked savvy, perhaps common sense, with respect to office politics.
To a large extent, she brought misfortune upon herself.
Yet, of the various deputies who filed grievances or court cases based on their treatment by Garcetti or his high echelon staff, she came out the best, garnering a federal court ruling that her civil rights had been breached, and being awarded a cash settlement by the County of Los Angeles.
Soon after Garcetti became DA in December 1992, he assigned Blodgett, on an interim basis, as head deputy in Torrance, effective in January. She immediately set about to change practices that had prevailed there under the previous head deputy.
That person was Garcetti.
In the course of trying to clean house—that is, the house that the new DA, himself, had purportedly messed up—she proved abrasive and dictatorial. Word of that reached the head office.
Garcetti decided after a year to move her to Santa Monica, and to a non-supervisory position.
Here we have the makings of a conflict over whether Blodgett was removed because she was putting Garcetti in bad light or was simply too confrontational to serve adequately as a supervisor.
Garcetti telephoned her on Feb. 9, 1994, to tell her of the demotion and transfer. Blodgett filed a grievance on Feb. 16, and the following day, summoned reporters from two newspapers to her office to voice allegations as to what was being done wrong in the South Bay.
An article in the next morning’s issue of the Los Angeles Times begins:
“The top prosecutor in the district attorney’s Torrance office says she is being demoted partly because she questioned what she called a too-lenient policy of plea bargaining by her predecessors.
“Monika Blodgett, a 17-year district attorney’s office veteran, alleged in an interview Thursday that her refusal to allow plea bargains in serious criminal cases has ruffled feathers among colleagues, defense attorneys and judges in the Torrance courthouse. Blodgett, who came to the United States from Germany as a teen-ager and speaks with an accent, also said she has been harassed because of her heritage, often being referred to as a ‘Nazi’—a word she finds abhorrent.”
As an article that day in Daily Breeze tells it, she disclosed that she had “asked for an investigation” by the office “on several cases” handled during the time Garcetti was head deputy there. The article elaborates:
“Blodgett said she complained about three cases in which she disagreed with plea bargains or lenient sentences she felt prosecutors should have challenged as illegal, all handled while Garcetti supervised the Torrance office.”
The account continues:
“During the 1992 election, Blodgett said, she supported Garcetti. She remembered his vow to reduce plea bargains and demand integrity from his prosecutors.
“ ‘I know what Mr. Garcetti said,’ Blodgett said. ‘I heard the same words you did. I don’t believe them anymore.’ “
The Daily Breeze report says that Blodgett suspected that she incurred disfavor for having reported a supervisor who, she heard second-hand, had referred to her as a “Nazi.”
According to the Breeze:
“The demotion capped more than 13 months of turmoil. Almost immediately after she moved to Torrance, defense attorneys, prosecutors and even judges began complaining about her style.”
The Feb. 18 reports in the Times and the Breeze sparked immediate discipline, without observance of Civil Service protocol. But the penalty was mild…if not beneficial. Garcetti’s second-in-command, Chief Deputy Sandra Buttitta, suspended Blodgett for the day, but with pay. The day was a Friday, and it preceded a three-day holiday weekend. Monday was President’s Day. So, she got a four-day weekend, with no financial penalty. She was already scheduled to start work Tuesday in Santa Monica, and merely left the Torrance battle zone one day early. That’s punishment?
In 1995. Blodgett was passed over for a promotion.
Retired attorney John J. Collins, now vice chair of the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, recalls:
“She sued Gil. She sued Sundstedt. She sued Sandi. She sued the county.”
Collins was brought in to represent those defendants in an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Blodgett sued under 42 USC §1983 for alleged civil rights violations. She sought monetary damages over the pay loss because she wasn’t promoted, as well as attorney fees.
On March 7, 1996, Judge Laughlin Waters (since deceased) ruled in favor of Blodgett solely in connection with the issue of her one-day suspension. He found the discipline to have been “improper retaliation” for her “legitimate exercise” of her right to free speech in uttering criticisms to reporters.
Waters adopted findings of the county Civil Service Commission which included the conclusion that “the Torrance office was known as a ‘good old boys’ place and for its ‘clubby’ atmosphere and lack of discipline.”
The relevance of that finding is explained by Collins. He says a major complaint of Blodgett (though not reflected in the Times or Daily Breeze reports) was that “‘good old boys’ in the South Bay were getting preferential treatment” in connection with case dispositions.
Another finding was that while some in Torrance praised Blodgett, others found her “rude and confrontational.”
The issue as to the legitimacy of the transfer, as well as Blodgett’s insistence that she had been passed over for a promotion because of gender bias, remained.
Trial of the action was scheduled for March 13, 2001. However, on Nov. 30, 2000, in the waning days of the Garcetti Administration, a settlement was reached, subject to approval of the Board of Supervisors.
Blodgett was to be promoted to head deputy, retroactively to 1995, and would receive $480,000 settlement, $45,000 of that amount being in back pay.
The board gave its approval Feb. 20, 2001. Blodgett resigned a short time afterward.
Collins noted that most of the $480,000 was to compensate Blodgett for attorney fees.
I wasn’t able to get through to Meir Westreich, the attorney who represented Blodgett.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company