A Kern High School District attorney on Monday criticized lawyers who announced that whistle-blowing Police Chief Joseph Lopeteguy filed a civil suit alleging the district retaliated against him after uncovering his bosses were misusing a sensitive police information database.
The district’s defense attorney, Arnold Anchordoquy, wouldn’t comment on the suit, which was filed Friday afternoon, citing ethical constraints placed on him by the California Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct.
“We’re not to talk about anything that could impact a jury pool, and what the plaintiff’s attorneys are doing — it seems to me — they are impacting the jury pool and I cannot do that,” Anchordoquy said.
Anchordoquy did say that Education Code 38000(b), which Lopeteguy’s lawyers have cited as evidence the district violated state law by not reorganizing its police department under the autonomous leadership of a police chief, is open to interpretation.
“If they’re going to use that as a standard to establish negligence, it’s for a judge to determine,” Anchordoquy said. “We’ll get our day in court and our position will be articulated at that time.”
Lopeteguy's lawyer, Seth O'Dell, said the ethical code Anchordoquy cited doesn't apply to this case. That's because there's a substantial harm to the public if the district continues running rap sheets and registration checks without good reason, O'Dell said.
He said he also has an ethical obligation to clear his client's good name, which was damaged when a high-ranking KHSD administrator "falsely accused" him of committing a crime.
"KHSD wants to shut everybody down and doesn't want anything to be talked about. When the truth hurts your client, attack their attorney, right?" O'Dell said.
The district tried and failed last year to have a gag order placed on those involved in the Carter v. KHSD case, which alleged the district acted negligently when it allowed a Bakersfield High School football player to don a chicken suit during a pep rally in 2010 to mock an opposing team's mascot, which led to his being attacked by a mob of unruly teenagers. One of Lopeteguy's lawyers, Nick Rowley, tried that case and secured a $10.5 million settlement mid-trial.
"Obviously, they haven't had time to request a gag order yet at this early stage, but I wouldn't be surprised if they do just like they did with the Carter case," O'Dell said.
Lopeteguy’s suit alleges, among other things, a culture of illegal practices, cover-up and retaliation within the state’s largest high school district. Administrators routinely culled through a criminal information database to run rap sheets and background checks on thousands of people that even sworn officers need good reason to access. They deployed so-called “Rambo squads” to ensure student athletes lived within high school boundaries. And they falsified Department of Justice audits about the CLETS use, according to the suit.
Administrators placed Lopeteguy on administrative leave after he uncovered the CLETS misuse and reported it to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Later, Assistant Superintendent Mike Zulfa filed a police report alleging it was Lopeteguy who was misusing CLETS – an accusation the Tulare County District Attorney’s office investigated. It found there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
Trustee Jeff Flores said he's taking the suit seriously, and that CLETS should only be used properly by authorized personnel.
"If I find out the district did it outside those parameters, then it’s a problem," Flores said.
Lopeteguy’s suit is the first legal action to be taken against KHSD since the CLETS scandal became public in August.