By John Hill - jhill@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PST Thursday, January 10, 2008

The California Highway Patrol retaliated against a whistle-blower who challenged then-Commissioner Dwight "Spike" Helmick for the top job, the state board that oversees personnel ruled in a decision released Wednesday.

The board ruled that the CHP chief who sought to replace Helmick was also punished for criticizing a decision to let some officers keep working past the mandatory retirement age.

The CHP and five officials, including Helmick, must pay a total of $40,000 to whistle-blower Hubert Acevedo, who is now the police chief of Austin, Texas.
The one official still working at the CHP, Chief Mike Nivens, was suspended for 30 days without pay. The state Personnel Board said it would have disciplined the others, including Helmick, if they had not retired from state service.

The retaliation "was designed to cause maximum stress, embarrassment and damage to (Acevedo's) reputation, and was particularly egregious," the 71-page decision concludes.

Among the CHP's tactics were "disturbing, profane threats to 'remove' him, smearing his reputation with . colleagues, placing dubious corrective memoranda in his official personnel file, and interfering with his chances to promote."

Acevedo said in an interview Wednesday that he was subjected to an "emotional roller coaster" for standing up against a policy that state officials later called invalid. "The effect this has had on my life has been devastating," he said. "Myself and my family have been living with the cloud."

State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who testified in the whistle-blower case, called the episode "a disgrace."

"What I saw is a government bureaucracy that just ran amok," Romero said. "I think it merits an investigation of the depths of the retaliation Chief Acevedo was forced to undergo."

The CHP said it could not comment on specifics in the decision because of ongoing civil litigation and restrictions on revealing personnel matters involving peace officers. Under current commissioner Mike Brown, "The CHP does not condone and will not tolerate retaliation of any kind by anyone within the organization," spokeswoman Fran Clader said in a written response.
The state Personnel Board's decision paints a scathing picture of retaliation and other unsavory behavior in the highest ranks of the CHP under Helmick.

An administrative law judge heard the case during a total of 12 days of testimony in 2006 and 2007. Among the witnesses were the current and former top brass of the CHP, including Helmick; his top assistant, Deputy Commissioner Manuel Padilla; Brown; and Romero.

"Helmick testified in a cagy and evasive manner at the hearing, and showed convenient lapses of memory," Gregory Brown, the administrative law judge, wrote. "Portions of his testimony were contradicted by the objective evidence." He did not find Helmick credible when he testified that he did not try to stay on as commissioner after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall election in 2003.

Helmick, who was replaced by Mike Brown in 2004, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The report details a chain of events that began in March 2004, when Acevedo announced his interest in replacing Helmick. A week after Acevedo told Helmick of his plans, the decision says, two identical anonymous letters were sent to the CHP alleging misconduct by Acevedo, including sexual harassment in 1989.

Capt. William Leist, then the head of CHP's internal affairs, refused to take part in that investigation, the decision says. He believed the charges were beyond the statute of limitations for disciplinary action and were intended to punish Acevedo for applying for commissioner. Despite that, the CHP later issued a formal warning letter to Acevedo for the alleged misconduct.

In May 2004, after The Sacramento Bee published a story about the CHP retaining some officers past the mandatory retirement age of 60 so that they could benefit from a pension increase, Acevedo called a retired officer on his personal cell phone to discuss the issue.

By mistake, he hit the "redial" button on his CHP cell phone, the report says. As a result, the conversation was recorded on the voice mail of Padilla.

As a result, Acevedo got another warning letter for allegedly failing to adhere to an agreement not to talk to the media. The disciplinary letter alleged that Acevedo revealed in the phone conversation that he intended to provide Helmick's home phone number to the media.

The state Department of Personnel Administration later said the CHP overstepped its authority in allowing some officers to work past the mandatory retirement age of 60 so they could benefit from a pension boost. However, the department said it had no authority to force Helmick to rescind the agreement.

The decision released Wednesday found that the CHP retaliated against Acevedo in several ways. Padilla and another official threatened to remove him from his job. The CHP bucked its normal practice by not allowing Acevedo to fill in for a commander who was sick, instead transferring a chief from another division.

Acevedo also has filed a lawsuit against the CHP in Sacramento Superior Court.

The CHP, Helmick and Padilla were each fined $10,000. Former Assistant Commissioner Gary Townsend got a $6,000 fine. Nivens and personnel chief Robert Giannoni, who retired recently, were each fined $2,000.