Criminal cases were dismissed Friday against nine former California Highway Patrol officers charged in connection with an alleged multi-year overtime fraud scheme, but a prosecutor told the judge the charges will be refiled.
Deputy Attorney General Paul Thies asked for the cases to be dismissed, but declined outside court to explain why he made the request.
It was not immediately clear when the cases would be refiled.
Connie Marie Guzman, 57; Edmund Zorrilla, 48; Giovanni Bembi, 43; Luis Manuel Mendoza, 45; William Matthew Fountain, 39; and William Preciado, 57, were charged July 8 in connection with an internal criminal investigation launched by the CHP in May 2018 into overtime fraud that allegedly occurred between Jan. 1, 2016, and March 31, 2018, while officers were assigned to protection details for Caltrans workers, according to a statement released by the California Attorney General’s Office.
The six were initially charged with one count each of grand theft and multiple counts of presentation of a false claim, but the prosecution subsequently filed an amended criminal complaint that reduced the number of charges against each of them.
The case against the other three former officers — Ruben Robles, 43; Rey David Thorne, 54; and Martin Gerardo Vasquez, 52 — was subsequently filed in September.
The criminal complaints alleged that the offenses “were not discovered until May 4, 2018, by investigators from the California Highway Patrol who were being made aware of irregularities in the overtime being reported by officers out of the CHP East Los Angeles Station and began an investigation into the alleged fraud.”
Defense attorneys had filed legal papers challenging the complaint.
Attorneys Joseph Weimortz and Samuel S. Park, representing Bembi and Preciado, wrote in their filings that the charges are “not the product of a good-faith investigation which uncovered previously undiscovered overtime fraud” and that the case “represents the criminalization of existing CHP overtime practices which CHP was aware of for decades.”
The defense attorneys wrote that under the written 2012 Standard Operation Procedure for the CHP’s East Los Angeles station — which was openly posted on the overtime board in the hallway outside the break room and the sergeants’ office and not changed until February 2019 — the CHP and Caltrans established a practice where officers who performed overtime protection for the Construction Zone Enhanced Enforcement Program and Maintenance Zone Enhanced Enforcement Program “would get paid the full amount even if Caltrans ended the detail early” and that the officers would remain on call for the remainder of the time.
The filings include a declaration from Art Acevedo, who was an officer, sergeant and captain of the East Los Angeles station and an assistant chief in the CHP’s Southern Division, who wrote that officers have historically been compensated by Caltrans for the amount of overtime hours promised when they show up for a shift and that he is “of the belief this is a practice statewide.”
In a February 2019 statement, then-CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley said he had been made aware of the “ongoing investigation into overtime abuse in our East Los Angeles Area office, and I am frankly angered and appalled by the actions of those involved.”
Stanley said then that the issue appeared to be restricted to the East Los Angeles office.
“However, out of an abundance of caution and to ensure something like this doesn’t happen elsewhere, the CHP has put additional safeguards in place to prevent it,” he added.
Acevedo countered in his declaration that the CHP has “singled out and is scapegoating the East Los Angeles Area, which historically has been a command staffed predominantly by personnel of Hispanic descent.”