Kern High School District administrators and other employees misused a criminal database to investigate students, and while sheriff’s officials recommended criminal charges against two, no one was prosecuted, according to documents obtained this past week.
They also reveal that high-level KHSD officials refused to cooperate with a Kern County Sheriff’s Office investigation of the matter, and that the whistleblower believes he was retaliated against.
A high school district spokeswoman declined to comment for this column, saying an investigation was underway. Others either declined to be interviewed or couldn’t be reached.
At issue is KHSD use of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or CLETS. Criminal justice agencies use it to run background checks.
Authorities are only supposed to access the system for law enforcement purposes, not for such things as checking on prospective renters or dating partners or spying on a former spouse. And it can be a misdemeanor or felony to give information obtained through CLETS to someone unauthorized to receive it.
In this case, KHSD Chief of Police Joe Lopeteguy suspected misuse of the system at his district in August 2015 and asked his former employer, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, to investigate, according to a sheriff’s investigative report dated July 28, 2016.
The report says KHSD police accessed CLETS to get information about a special education student for unknown reasons; an employee who’d filed a workers’ compensation claim with the district; and about 30 student athletes.
There was a group of KHSD employees known as “The Rambo Patrol” that went around to athletes’ homes gathering license plate information to help verify they lived at their stated address, a school district police dispatcher told investigators, the sheriff’s report says.
Lopeteguy told investigators that in August 2015, he received an email from KHSD Athletics Director Stan Greene requesting a computer check on a license plate and to provide him the information.
Lopeteguy told Greene he could not do so because it was illegal, the report says. Shortly after, the chief reportedly said, he received an email from his boss, KHSD Director of Pupil Personnel Otis Jennings, wondering what was going on.
The message from Jennings read, “This is something we've done in the past through the chief for purposes of the district.”
Lopeteguy then called former KHSD Chief of Police Mike Collier, who is now a campus police officer, and asked if he’d been giving CLETS information to civilian directors and other personnel in the district, according to the document. According to Lopeteguy, Collier's reply was, “Yes, I have.”
Lopeteguy told investigators he believed both Greene and Jennings would request CLETS information.
Even more egregious are Lopeteguy’s claims that Jennings would have a dispatcher use Collier's identification number to run computer checks and wouldn’t always tell Collier about it.
Sheriff's investigators discovered 246 CLETS searches done using Collier's identification number during the 2014-15 school year, the report says. A majority of those, 187, were requests for Department of Motor Vehicles information. Thirty-two were for vehicle registration details; 21 for Criminal Justice Information Services information; three for criminal history checks; and three for Cal-Photos, which are photos obtained from the DMV.
KHSD police dispatcher Carol Stonecipher backed up what Lopeteguy reported, the Sheriff’s Office document shows.
It says she told investigators that Greene would come in with a list of licenses to run, but she would only run requests under Collier's order and with him providing his CLETS identification number. According to the report, Stonecipher also said Jennings would make CLETS requests and she would direct him to Collier.
The report states Jennings was not authorized to receive information obtained from CLETS. Asked by detectives what happened after Lopeteguy took over as chief and put a stop to the CLETS practice, Stonecipher said it upset a lot of people in the district.
Lopeteguy was appointed acting chief in July 2015 and made permanent chief in October.
I attempted to talk to the KHSD authorities in this story.
Lopeteguy did not return several calls made to him over the last three weeks. Jennings told me that “as much as I would like to comment about this, I cannot do so as a district employee.”
Collier couldn’t be reached; his office said he was out on vacation. A message left for Collier’s attorney wasn’t returned. A district office secretary reached Friday said Greene was not in. She agreed to leave him a message, which was not immediately returned.
KHSD spokeswoman Lisa Krch responded with an email that read, "I cannot comment due to a pending investigation."
In May of this year, investigators told Collier they wished to speak with him over the CLETS issue, the sheriff’s report says. No dice. Collier lawyered up and was never interviewed. They reportedly received the same response from Greene.
The report quotes Greene as saying he wanted to consult with the KHSD attorney. Both Collier and Greene refused to say anything.
Next up was Jennings, who when told he was a possible suspect refused to go to the Sheriff's Office for an interview and said he believed the whole case was retaliation for something, the report states.
Asked what he meant by that, Jennings reportedly said he would address the issue with the school district. Instead of giving an interview, Jennings said he would fax investigators a statement.
According to the report, Jennings denied ever being provided CLETS information. He danced around the question when he was asked if he’d heard of any CLETS checks being done to verify the residence of a student.
And when pressed on whether he’d ever asked Collier for CLETS information, Jennings started to say investigators would have to ask Collier, but then stopped.
Jennings never did provide a faxed statement, according to the report.
CHARGES SOUGHT; D.A. SAYS NO
Sheriff's investigators recommended in their report that charges be filed against Collier and Jennings for allegedly furnishing information obtained from CLETS to a person not authorized to receive it, a misdemeanor.
Kern County Deputy District Attorney Barry Klein told me he rejected the complaint due to insufficient evidence.
The sheriff’s report also quotes Klein as saying there were issues regarding statute of limitations.
Klein would not discuss the specifics of the case with me.
During the investigation, on May 13, KHSD placed Lopeteguy on administrative leave. Lopeteguy told investigators the district was accusing him of misusing CLETS and of incompetence.
Does this make any sense? The sheriff's investigative report says Lopeteguy was never a suspect, he was the reporting party.
Lopeteguy believes he is being ostracized for reporting CLETS misuse, the report says. He returned to work Aug. 1.
Lopeteguy worked for the Kern County Sheriff's Office for 27 years, retiring in 2008 as a senior deputy. Other cops I talked to give him high marks.
At KHSD, he put his job on the line by going to an outside agency. No doubt he is treading lightly, worried about keeping it.
Something tells me we haven't heard the last of this.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at email@example.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.