Thursday, August 27, 2009
Seaside Police Chief Steve Cercone filed a grievance with the Seaside City Council and city attorney Aug. 19, lashing out at Seaside City Manager Ray Corpuz, who put him on administrative leave nine days earlier.
“Corpuz and his staff obstructed a criminal case investigation by refusing to turn over complete evidence on a crime that happened in Seaside to the police or his detectives,” according to a summary of the grievance provided to the Weekly.
Corpuz violated at least four other laws, the grievance alleges: retaliating against Cercone for informing the district attorney about Corpuz’s alleged meddling; carrying out the threat to do so; allowing a deputy city manager to “facilitate employee abuse” during a Department of Fair Employment and Housing investigation; and “repeatedly allowing city staff to interfere or withhold information from the police, preventing a chief of police from keeping control of a department.”
The grievance calls for Corpuz’s removal from office, alleging he had a troubled history even before coming to Seaside. In 2003 Corpuz was fired from his position as the city manager of Tacoma, Wash., after the city’s police chief committed homicide and suicide. Corpuz had also been on criminal court probation, been investigated for insurance fraud and had a suspended driver’s license around the time of his Seaside hire in 2005, according to Cercone’s complaint.
Corpuz says he hasn’t seen the grievance and will not comment on it. “I’ve heard rumors about it,” he says. “I really don’t want to know.”
He refers related questions to Rick Bolanos of San Francisco-based law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, which is handling the case on the city’s behalf.
Bolanos flatly rejects rumors that Corpuz suspended Cercone because the chief wanted to involve the district attorney in a criminal investigation of SSPD officers that Corpuz wanted to handle as a personnel matter.
“The reason Mr. Cercone was placed on leave was to allow for the department to respond to and address matters under investigation internally within the department,” Bolanos says. “It had nothing to do with the district attorney.”
The city has retained an independent investigator to conduct the administrative review of Cercone, he adds.
Bolanos refutes the idea that Cercone’s suspension is closely connected with sexual harassment complaints filed by Seaside Code Enforcement Officer Vanessa Alcaraz against Officer Barry Pasquarosa and Cmdr. Mike Kimball. Cercone recently placed Pasquarosa, Kimball and Deputy Chief Louis Lumpkin on administrative leave.
“Even the people that are in the positions lack experience.” “They are not directly related,” Bolanos says.
Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hulsey says her office has not been asked to look into alleged obstruction of justice by Corpuz, and that its investigation does not pertain to him.
Corpuz placed Cercone on paid administrative leave Aug. 10, replacing him within 24 hours with Interim Chief Steve Willis.
Cercone says he’s been forbidden to comment on the matter.
Willis, a retired police chief from Sausalito, has been doing interim chief stints, mostly in Sonoma County, for the past nine years. He says Seaside Deputy City Manager Daphne Hodgson first contacted him about the job Aug. 7, and he began work Aug. 11. The city is paying Willis $78 per hour, plus a car and lodging, with no benefits.
Willis then recruited long-time colleague Don MacQuarrie, who has more than three decades experience in the police force, to serve as SSPD’s Interim Deputy Chief starting Aug. 24. Willis says MacQuarrie will bring much-needed oversight to the SSPD administration: “Even the people that are in the positions lack experience.”
Because Willis didn’t undergo a background check, his contract with Seaside calls him an executive director, he says. He’s not a sworn officer and he doesn’t have arrest powers, but he says he may carry a gun, wear a badge and call himself the chief.
But John Dineen, a bureau chief with California Peace Officer Standards and Training, disagrees. “That’s very odd,” he says. “He can be the executive head of the agency and function as the chief. In most cases when you hear about that, the person’s not walking around wearing a uniform and a badge and carrying a gun.”
A background check, along with psychological and medical exams, are required before a city may place an interim chief – a process that tends to take more than a few days, Dineen adds. Normally, when a police chief is placed on sudden leave, a city will name someone from the command staff as the interim chief, he says.
SSPD Officer Roberto Filice and others spoke in support of Cercone at the Aug. 20 City Council meeting, where Mayor Ralph Rubio introduced Willis.
Willis says SSPD’s officers are carrying on, despite some uncertainty about what they are allowed to talk about. “Most of the employees are a little concerned about how far they can go on certain things because I believe they’ve all been advised not to discuss this,” he says. “I feel they’re receptive to me being here, under the circumstances.”
Mayor Rubio skirts questions about Cercone’s leave, saying he’s under legal advice to keep quiet on the matter. But he expects the interim chief to have a short stay in Seaside: “We hope to get these issues resolved so we can get back to normal.”