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Developmental center police investigating officer’s overtime

Monica Lam/California Watch The Office of Protective Services is the in-house police force at California's developmental centers.

The in-house police force at California’s developmental centers is investigating one of its patrol officers for large overtime paychecks and an admission that he has slept on the job.

Thomas Lopez, an officer at the Porterville Developmental Center, has doubled and tripled his base salary with overtime for nearly a decade, California Watch reported in May. The force, called the Office of Protective Services, employs roughly 90 sworn police officers, 22 of whom doubled their salaries with overtime at least once during the past four years.

The state-run police force last year paid about $2 million in overtime to 80 of its officers. The officers patrol and investigate criminal activity at five board-and-care institutions that house about 1,800 patients with severe intellectual disabilities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Tulare and Sonoma counties.

Last week, Linda Jo Goldstein, an Office of Protective Services detective, contacted California Watch seeking details about the news gathering process on the overtime story related to Lopez.

California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, declined to contribute to the police examination beyond its published reports.

"News organizations should not take part in police investigations," said Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. "We stand by our work, and if it exposes problems and issues that lead to investigations by authorities, that is not a decision or process we participate in."

Terri Delgadillo, director of the Department of Developmental Services, which operates the institutions, released a statement Tuesday in response to questions from California Watch.

The department "will continue to closely monitor overtime usage and thoroughly investigate areas of potential abuse," Delgadillo wrote in an email. "Commanders and the Chief of the Office of Protective Services, along with department headquarter managers, review overtime monthly to identify anomalies and validate the appropriateness of overtime usage. This allows for timely identification of potential issues and serves as a deterrent to overtime abuse."

Delgadillo did not respond to questions about the nature and scope of the police overtime inquiry.

A previous California Watch investigation, published in February, found the Office of Protective Services failed to conduct basic police work even when patients died under mysterious circumstances over the past decade. State officials have documented hundreds of cases at the facilities of abuse and unexplained injuries, almost none of which have led to arrests.

The small police force is one of the most proficient in the state at accumulating overtime. For several of the officers, their overtime payouts would have required them to work 70 to 100 hours a week the entire year to earn the extra cash.

In 2008, Lopez collected $146,000 in overtime pay in addition to his $58,000 salary. To earn the extra pay, Lopez would have had to work 107 hours every week of the year, according to a California Watch analysis of state pay data.

Some of the shifts are spent idling, waiting for a call for police assistance, Lopez said. He confirmed that he has slept during his work hours.

“At night, it gets a little bit slow. It’s hard not to doze off sometimes,” he said during an interview earlier this year. “You try to stay up. But you better take your calls, and you better take your reports. It’s hard because that time drags.”

Lopez did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Although Lopez drew the most extra pay within the Office of Protective Services the past four years, many of his colleagues also claim large amounts of overtime. In 2011, average overtime pay for developmental center officers was $20,981, according to state salary data. Officers’ average base salary was $46,630.

The Porterville center, where Lopez works, also has past experience with overtime abuse and fraud investigations.

Two years ago, a Tulare County grand jury indicted the Office of Protective Services’ police chief and top detective on embezzlement charges related to overtime pay. Porterville police found evidence that the detective had claimed overtime hours on days he was vacationing in Las Vegas, which the chief knowingly approved.

A judge threw out the charges last year, ruling that the developmental center police’s internal probe violated the officers’ rights under the California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights.

The state attorney general’s office agreed to take over the case, though the state’s lawyers have made no progress toward refiling criminal charges, Porterville Police Chief Chuck McMillan told The Recorder in Porterville recently.

Lynda Gledhill, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the state continues to investigate the earlier Porterville overtime fraud allegations.

Officials inside the developmental center force have prepared for an inquiry, email records show.

In October, the Office of Protective Services commander at Porterville, David Montoya, directed officers to refer questions from “the Attorney General’s Office or any other agent from another government agency” to the Department of Developmental Services’ lawyers in Sacramento.

Montoya’s instructions, obtained by California Watch, apply to requests for public records, specifically police policies and practices, "or any other information by circumventing our Chief and HQ."

In a written statement in April, the Department of Developmental Services said the order simply follows existing guidelines for disclosing information. It is not intended to inhibit outside investigations.

"The commander’s note is appropriate and in accordance with routine state policy for all departments in the Health and Human Services Agency,” the statement reads. “Communications to or from department personnel especially from attorneys or law offices are supposed to be routed through the Department’s Office of Legal Affairs office. A request from the AG’s office, on its face, would presumably involve a case or other legal matter."

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