Joseph Lopeteguy, the whistle-blowing Kern High School District police chief who alleged his boss and colleagues misused a law enforcement database, filed a $2.2 million claim against the district Monday alleging district officials retaliated against him.
The claim, which is a precursor to a civil lawsuit, alleges he was placed on administrative leave because he sounded the alarm on employees accessing the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System to run background checks on students and others.
“He has been set up,” attorney Michael Dolan, who filed the claim on Lopeteguy’s behalf, said in an interview. “They tried everything to discredit this guy.”
District officials have not yet responded to a request for comment.
When Lopeteguy reported CLETS misuse to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in May, district officials placed him on administrative leave. He was reinstated Aug. 1, but took a personal leave of absence late last week after his doctors ordered him not to return to work.
The claim alleges his mental health has suffered.
Lopeteguy has experienced chest pains and anxiety, seen his blood pressure rise to hypertensive levels and has not been able to eat or sleep regularly, the claim states.
“All of these injuries (were) caused by the KHSD actions of retaliation and continued attempts to discredit him as a police officer,” the claim states.
Lopeteguy is seeking $570,000 in lost wages and benefits, and $1.7 million for physical and emotional damages. The claim names all KHSD employees identified in the sheriff’s report as being involved in the misuse of CLETS, including Athletics Director Stan Greene, Director of Pupil Personnel Otis Jennings and former KHSD Police Chief Mike Collier.
The Sheriff's Office recommended criminal misdemeanor charges against Collier and Jennings for allegedly furnishing information obtained from CLETS to a person not authorized to receive it. But the Kern County District Attorney's office declined to prosecute citing lack of evidence.
The district has not disciplined any of those individuals, the claim states.
In a May 13 email to Lopeteguy, KHSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Michael Zulfa wrote that the district was investigating Lopeteguy’s “conduct as a police chief and allegations of misuse of CLETS.”
Zulfa also wrote that the district was investigating the possibility that Lopeteguy failed to perform his duties in “a competent manner.”
“It’s the opposite,” Dolan said. “Joe (Lopeteguy) was the one who blew the whistle. In fact, when he went down for a follow-up interview, the detective was scratching his head saying, ‘You’re the reporting party. You’re not a suspect.’”
Still, an internal investigation performed during Lopeteguy’s absence suggested he acted “unprofessionally,” the claim states.
“Zulfa gave no explanation as to what was meant by ‘unprofessionally’ but told (Lopeteguy) he could appeal,” the claim states.
After reinstating Lopeteguy, district officials continued attempts to discredit him, Dolan alleges. Zulfa contacted the Sheriff’s Office and said that in March 2014, Lopeteguy had illegally used CLETS to run a background check on his stepson, described in the claim as a heroin addict and KHSD employee who was stealing to support his habit.
Zulfa is not authorized to possess CLETS or Criminal Justice Information Systems reports, but provided sheriff’s officials with a copy of a CJIS report as evidence, the claim states.
Dolan writes in the claim that Lopeteguy had reason to believe that his stepson had an outstanding arrest warrant, and that if that was the case, he would report it to another officer to take him to jail.
Lopeteguy’s stepson died of a heroin overdose shortly after the incident, the claim states.
“Zulfa acted on behalf of KHSD to humiliate and cause claimant to suffer emotional distress. Continuing to subject (Lopeteguy) to a hostile work environment by subjecting (him) to an unwarranted investigation,” the claim states.