Lt. Jerald Wyatt and Sgt. Gilbert Valdez, two Kern High School District police officers who claim that school officials retaliated against them for their part in uncovering the district's alleged misuse of a sensitive police information database, filed lawsuits this week against the district.
Filed in Kern County Superior Court, the civil complaint alleges that after Wyatt and Valdez investigated misuse during the course of their duties, the district engaged in a “campaign of threats, coercion, and intimidation against them.”
Their complaint not only details the harassment that Wyatt and Valdez alleged in a government claim filed in the spring, but also sheds light on new information not widely known since the scandal became public more than a year ago. The suit alleges:
- KHSD was operating an illegal slush fund supplied by towing fees and fines.
- More than 100 people were arrested without properly written reports being filed.
- Police Chief Joseph Lopeteguy was retaliated against by Superintendent Bryon Schaefer because the two had differing opinions on whether to establish a policy allowing concealed carry weapon permit holders to bring firearms on campus. Lopeteguy wouldn’t endorse Schaefer’s opinion.
- In retaliation for their part in the CLETS investigation, members of the KHSD police department surveilled Valdez and Wyatt, tailing them, illegally recording them and subjecting them to unwarranted investigations.
- Abuses of the police database continued for years because the district failed to reorganize its police department in accordance with Education Code 38000(b), which mandates school districts maintaining police departments do so under the direction of a police chief. That law is designed “to insulate school police employees from the undue influence of school administrators,” the lawsuit states. “The defendants continue to ignore California law in this regard.”
The suit – which alleges 15 separate violations of labor codes, whistleblower protection acts and claims of harassment – names as defendants the KHSD, its board of trustees and former KHSD Acting Police Chief Dave Edmiston, who pled no contest this year to illegally recording Wyatt without his knowledge.
It’s the second such suit related to the CLETS scandal to have been filed. The first was filed in March on behalf of Lopeteguy.
KHSD spokeswoman Lisa Krch said the district cannot comment on pending litigation. As of Thursday morning, KHSD had not yet been served, said Arnold Anchordoquy, the district’s lawyer.
Anchordoquy said he knows of no factual information to establish that the district was operating a slush fund, or that there were illegal arrests.
“I have no idea what that is,” Anchordoquy said.
He wouldn’t comment further about the complaint, which he hadn’t yet seen, saying he didn’t want to “try the case in the public arena.”
Valdez and Wyatt’s lead counsel, Nicholas Rowley, of the Beverly Hills-based law firm Carpenter, Zuckerman & Rowley LLP, could not be reached for comment.
VALDEZ, WYATT INVESTIGATED ABUSE
The civil suit comes after a year of scandal. KHSD’s use of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or CLETS, a police information database, came into question after Lopeteguy suspected misuse in August 2015. That database is restricted to law enforcement purposes only, and when officers and other authorized people run names through the system they must have “need-to-know, right-to-know” status, and the inquiry must have a legitimate law enforcement purpose.
Lopeteguy saw red flags when KHSD Athletics Director Stan Greene asked him to run a license plate number. Lopeteguy told Greene such a search would be illegal, then told his boss, Director of Pupil Personnel Otis Jennings, about it. Jennings told Lopeteguy it was something that had been done in the past “through the chief for the purposes of the district,” according the complaint.
Lopeteguy asked his two most senior officers, Valdez and Wyatt, to investigate.
They found what appeared to be a years-long practice of misuse by district officials and reported their findings to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Valdez and Wyatt discovered thousands of names had been run through the system, alleging in now-public sheriff’s reports that the district performed illegal background checks for pre-employment background screenings – something the Department of Justice has determined to be illegal – and names were run through the database to fulfill inquiries on employees, students, parents and athletic competitors.
“Internally, these illegal searches were often listed under the umbrella category of being for ‘purposes of the district,’” the complaint alleges.
District officials also worked in coordination with a team of staff members who called themselves the Rambo Squad to verify whether student athletes were living within their proper high school boundaries, according to the complaint. Those squads would go to the homes of student athletes, “scan for license plate numbers and then direct civilian secretarial staff to run the plate numbers,” the complaint states.
Valdez and Wyatt reported their findings to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office – Lopeteguy’s former employer – and they recommended criminal misdemeanor charges against Jennings and former Police Chief Mike Collier for allegedly furnishing information obtained from CLETS to a person not authorized to receive it. The Kern County District Attorney’s office declined to pursue criminal charges, citing a lapsed statute of limitations and lack of evidence.
‘CAMPAIGN OF INTIMIDATION’
The internal reaction to Valdez and Wyatt’s investigation, the lawsuit alleges, was a “campaign” of intimidation. They were harassed, verbally threatened, and surveilled by members of their own police force.
The complaint alleges it was part of an unwarranted investigation.
Acting Police Chief Edmiston admitted to illegally recording a conversation with Wyatt on at least four separate conversations. The contents of those conversations have been sealed by a judge, and The Californian's California Public Records Act requests asking for the recordings have been denied.
District officials also used Valdez’s and Wyatt’s identities to run illegal CLETS searches, the complaint alleges.
DUELING OPINIONS ON GUN POLICY
The 33-page civil complaint also spills into an entirely different controversy that involved the district last year: a policy debate about whether to allow CCW permit holders to bring firearms on campus.
Lopeteguy was asked his opinion of the controversial policy, which was debated at KHSD for months. He told Board Trustee Mike Williams, a proponent of the policy, that he agreed to allow teachers and civilians to conceal-carry on campus, the complaint alleges. Lopeteguy, a highly decorated, retired SWAT officer with KCSO for 27 years, has also taught firearms training, including private CCW permitting classes.
Lopeteguy’s opinion ran counter to Superintendent Schaefer’s view, the complaint alleges.
Schaefer “expressed anger that Chief Lopeteguy had supported the rule,” the complaint states, referring to the approval of policies allowing civilian CCW permit holders to bring firearms on campus. A vote to allow teachers the same privilege hadn’t yet taken place.
At the same time, former trustee Chad Vegas was expressing frustration over administrators' delay of the vote on the firearms policy until he was termed out of office in December. He raised the issue to Schaefer during at least one public meeting.
Valdez and Wyatt claim they were “chilled” out from presenting their views about the matter to the media, members of the public, and during open comment sessions to the governing board of trustees. Wyatt was “only allowed to recite a pre-approved pro/con list relating to the issue,” the complaint states. They say that violated their constitutional rights.
“The defendants used threats, intimidation and coercion to prevent the plaintiffs from exercising their political positions on the teacher conceal-carry matter,” the complaint states. “The defendants’ conduct was extreme and outrageous in that it went beyond all possible bounds of decency such that a reasonable person would regard the conduct as intolerable in a civilized community.”
It’s unclear how much damages could run, however Rowley said upon announcing Lopeteguy’s civil suit in March that his damages alone could be more than $100 million.