If only half the accusations that flew back and forth this week in Santa Maria are true, the city is beset by deep-rooted corruption that led to the unlawful firing of one of its longtime police lieutenants, or that lieutenant is guilty of gross incompetence fed by sinister motivation that led to the death of one of his officers.
Lieutenant Dan Ast, a 23-year veteran of the Santa Maria Police Department before he was terminated last March in the wake of the fatally botched arrest of Officer Albert Covarrubias, is challenging his firing to an outside mediator who will submit an opinion to the city manager at the end of the five-day hearing, which Ast and his attorney opted to hold publicly. On Monday, attorney Jonathan Miller said his client was the victim of retaliation after he and two of the city’s five police lieutenants filed a whistleblower complaint 12 days before the Covarrubias incident. The 29-year-old Covarrubias, under investigation for a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old member of the department’s Explorer program, was shot and killed by a fellow officer on January 28, 2012, when he resisted arrest and fired his own gun during a confusing and violent confrontation at a late-night DUI checkpoint.
In the complaint, the three lieutenants made allegations of widespread misconduct in the department, saying one officer emailed pictures of his penis to a woman and another received oral sex in public. They claimed concealed weapon permits were issued to unqualified individuals and that the department worked an unsafe amount of overtime. But rather than follow proper whistleblower procedures for a report against the department and its then-chief Danny Macagni — like keeping the identities of informers private to protect them from potential backlash — Deputy City Manager Alicia Lara (who is also head of Human Resources), City Manager Rick Haydon, and City Attorney Gil Trujillo immediately notified Macagni, Miller said.
That set off a chain reaction of retaliation including eight unfounded internal affairs investigations and Ast’s firing many months later. Miller claimed the city is more concerned with protecting itself from a public relations nightmare than cleaning up “a culture that led to the rape of a minor.” Ast’s involvement in the Covarrubias fiasco was “very minor at best,” Miller went on, explaining his client didn’t plan the arrest and was following orders that night.
The District Attorney’s Office found no crime was committed by the police involved in the attempted arrest, and the city’s own investigation and its findings were simply a “hindsight, ramshackled, try-to-cover-ourselves, make-him-look-like-the-bad-guy justification for what they’re really doing here,” Miller stated. Six officers had knowledge of or were highly suspicious of Covarrubias’s affair but failed to report it; those are crimes that have never been prosecuted, Miller said.
Attorney Dennis Gonzales, representing Santa Maria, argued that Ast orchestrated Covarrubias’s arrest despite pointed concerns raised by his troops that the timing and location of the confrontation could lead to disastrous results. Ast chose to ignore those warnings, Gonzales went on, because he wanted to embarrass a rival lieutenant, Rico Flores, whom Covarrubias was serving under. Ast was jealous of Flores and his overtime pay and take-home vehicles, and he wanted to get back at him. “The whole case revolves around money,” Gonzales said.
Knowing that Flores had a reputation for talking openly about confidential information, Ast intentionally told him about the highly sensitive Covarrubias case prior to the arrest so Flores would put himself in a bind, Gonzales asserted. Flores did notify his officers that night — Covarrubias included — that some kind of investigation was taking place and to “mind their Ps and Qs.” That put Covarrubias on high alert. Nine individuals were disciplined after the Covarrubias shooting, but other than Ast, none of them have been publicly named because of privacy considerations. Gonzales also accused Ast of evading the truth when he spoke to investigators. During the struggle that night, Covarrubias was shot three times in the back of the neck by his best friend, Gonzales noted.
Monday was mainly devoted to opening statements, and in the only witness testimony that day, Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin echoed much of what Gonzales said. Martin was hired after Macagni stepped down and issued Ast’s termination once he reviewed 1,800 pages of reports and 100 hours of audiotape collected during the city’s investigation. Lambasting Ast for “gross misconduct” and lying to investigators, Martin raised his voice, pointed at Ast, and declared: “Albert Covarrubias did not deserve the death penalty.” Testimony continued Tuesday and is scheduled all week. Check independent.com for updates.