10/26 - Police official's past opens rift in force - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

10/26 - Police official's past opens rift in force

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Posted: Wednesday, November 5, 2003 12:54 pm | Updated: 1:08 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

At first, police polygraph examiner L.R. Disser detected what he termed “confusion” when he asked job applicant Helen Gandara-Zavala if she had ever used cocaine.

Following the examination, Gandara-Zavala admitted to using the illegal drug about 20 times, which normally would have disqualified her from consideration for a position in the Scottsdale Police Department. Gandara-Zavala signed a statement detailing her drug history, which also included about 10 instances of using marijuana.

Nine days later, on July 9, 1998, then-Scottsdale Police Chief Doug Bartosh issued a memo stating he was “very pleased” to have hired Gandara-Zavala as the department’s director of administrative services. The post is the civilian equivalent of a deputy chief, the second-highest position within the police command structure. She’s paid $108,888 a year.

Gandara-Zavala’s past drug use — and questions surrounding two police investigations related to her husband — are widely known within the police department and are causing morale problems among some department employees who believe policies are being selectively enforced, police union president Chet Anderson said last week.

“There has been an ongoing feeling out there that officers, lower-level employees, line-level employees, are held to one standard and upper staff is not held to that same standard,” said Anderson, president of Lodge 35 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents about 300 Scottsdale officers and civilian employees.

City officials who know about the matters are divided on what, if anything, they should do. The current morale problems continue a pattern of disruption within the police force. City Manager Jan Dolan fired Bartosh in January, months after a critical performance audit of the department by an outside consulting firm.

Gandara-Zavala, 41, is one of two women, and the lone minority, at the highest levels of the police command staff. She has authority over about 275 nonuniformed employees in six divisions, including forensic services, which encompasses the Scottsdale police crime laboratory.

Gandara-Zavala declined comment for this article.

A Tribune investigation that included examination of internal police documents, a letter by a retired police captain and court documents associated with a race discrimination lawsuit by a white employee found:

• Gandara-Zavala admitted to repeated drug use during her early 20s, but Bartosh waived city policy to hire her. Normally, applicants with more than one “experimental” use of cocaine are disqualified, though the policy also permits the chief to waive the standard for extraordinary cases.

Scottsdale officials declined a public records request by the Tribune for Gandara-Zavala's polygraph test report, citing privacy concerns. The Tribune obtained the report through other sources.

• A prominent criminal defense attorney raised questions in January about the integrity of blood tests conducted for a DUI case involving Gandara-Zavala’s husband, Mario Zavala, who was involved in an auto accident in 1999.

The blood tests were conducted in the crime laboratory that Gandara-Zavala oversees. DUI charges against another motorist in the accident were reduced to reckless driving after the attorney told prosecutors he planned to probe whether blood test results had been altered.

• Scottsdale police also opened an investigation into Mario Zavala’s possible role in drug activity, according to court documents. Another high-ranking police official notified Gandara-Zavala about the investigation, according to the documents.

Mayor Mary Manross said she has only a general knowledge of the issues surrounding Gandara-Zavala. She expects other officials will take whatever action is necessary. “I don’t know the facts at all,” she said. “I figured that it’s in the hands of the city manager and the police chief.”

City Councilman Bob Littlefield, a critic of the police department during Bartosh’s administration, said he wants answers. “If those allegations are true, then we have a serious problem and it needs to be brought to light and any misconduct needs to be punished,” he said.

Current Police Chief Alan Rodbell, who took office in January, said he is satisfied no improprieties have taken place.

A spokesman for city manager Jan Dolan said she declined to be interviewed for this article.

Police employees, meanwhile, are “apprehensive” about possible future disclosures stemming from two lawsuits against the city, said Chet Anderson, the police union president.

Former crime lab fingerprint technician Steven Anderson filed suit April 30, 2001, in U.S. District Court of Arizona against the city, Bartosh, Gandara-Zavala and other police officials for discrimination. His suit claims Hispanic police employees, including Gandara-Zavala, receive preferential treatment. The case is pending.

Chet Anderson and Steven Anderson are not related.

Bartosh filed suit this month in the same court and listed the city, the City Council and city manager as defendants for wrongful termination and for violation of his right to free speech. The case is in its earliest stages and the city has not yet responded to the initial claim.

When Dolan fired Bartosh, she said she was concerned about the need for more effective and accountable leadership. The city manager specifically noted that leadership included dedication to policies and priorities set by senior management.

Bartosh, who has started a police consulting business, said Gandara-Zavala is an ethical professional who is a victim of one or more vendettas within the police department.

“People are trying to dredge this up. They’re trying to embarrass her," Bartosh said.

ADMITTED DRUG USE

Former police Capt. Don Keenom alluded to questions surrounding Gandara-Zavala’s hiring in a 13-page letter entitled “It’s My Turn,” which he sent in February to Manross, the City Council, Dolan and others.

“She didn’t meet the qualifications. She apparently has a significant history of narcotic drug use. . . . ” wrote Keenom, who retired in November 2002.

Gandara-Zavala’s polygraph report supports Keenom’s statements. Her admission states:

“All my illegal drug use is confined to marijuana and/or cocaine — nothing else. I have not used any illegal drug since my marriage 7 years ago. My cocaine use is about 20 times and the marijuana is about half of that.”

The statement is dated June 30, 1998, and is signed by Gandara-Zavala and Disser, a now-retired polygraph examiner for the Glendale Police Department. Disser declined comment for this article.

The report notes that Gandara-Zavala said she used cocaine between the ages of 22 and 25. According to her resume, during that time she worked as a budget and management analyst for the city of El Paso, Texas, and as a law library assistant at an El Paso law firm.

The Scottsdale Police Department policy for civilian positions states that applicants must not have unlawfully used, sold, transported or produced any “dangerous drugs or illegal narcotics” within the past seven years before employment or anytime after the age of 21. It allows for a one-time “experimentation” use before age 21.

The policy provides an exception. “Only in cases involving extra-ordinary circumstances may this requirement be deviated from, and then only with the express approval of the Office of the Chief of Police.”

The city’s policy is based on standards established by the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, a statewide organization that certifies police officers.

The exception typically is used when an applicant can’t remember whether his or her one-time experimental use was before or after his or her 21st birthday, Chet Anderson said.

Bartosh tried to keep Gandara-Zavala’s drug-use admission secret, Keenom wrote in his letter.

“You want to know why this was a secret from everyone in staff? Because it was the wrong thing to do and people like me . . . would have been jumping up and down on the Chief’s desk asking what the heck they were doing and try to talk some sense in his head — that’s why!” Keenom wrote.

Keenom declined to elaborate about any of the issues in the letter. “About the only thing that I want to say about it is that I stand by what I said and what I wrote 100 percent,” he said.

Former police official William Sutter said he refused to sign the hiring packet for Gandara-Zavala, according to an affidavit associated with the Steven Anderson suit.

“During my employment as Bureau Commander for Professional Standards, I am aware of only one employee who was hired by the City of Scottsdale Police Department, even though she did not meet the standards for being hired by the City of Scottsdale. This employee was Administrative Services Bureau Director Helen Gandara-Zavala who was hired in 1998,” Sutter stated in the Feb. 28 affidavit.

Bartosh declined to discuss the details of Gandara-Zavala’s polygraph test, but he confirmed he used his privilege to waive certain standards, because she was the most qualified applicant for the job.

“Decisions were made about her hiring consistent with the policies of the Scottsdale Police Department and consistent with the laws of Arizona,” Bartosh said. “I mean, nothing unethical was done.”

Current chief Rodbell said he has never seen Gandara-Zavala’s polygraph test results, but officials in the city attorney’s office told him they are of no concern.

Gandara-Zavala has performed her duties admirably, Rodbell said. She has been greatly involved in his top three initiatives: Upgrading the police force’s level of technological equipment; developing a five-year strategic plan; and adjusting employee deployment.

Both Bartosh and Rodbell questioned Keenom’s intent for writing about Gandara-Zavala’s drug admission.

“He’s a sick puppy,” Bartosh said. “It’s sad. It really is. I mean, he’s a guy that just — he just couldn’t handle his divorce. I mean, he just went nuts after it.”

In fact, Keenom wrote in his letter to officials that he “almost had a nervous breakdown” following his divorce.

Keenom was disciplined following investigations of unprofessional conduct in June 2001 and April 2002. He resigned after being investigated for unprofessional conduct again in September 2002, according to police records.

The city did not respond to a public records requests for detailed reports of the Keenom incidents.

DUI INVESTIGATION

Questions about the crime lab stem from a two-car accident at 11:39 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 24, 1999, at the intersection of Civic Center Boulevard and Third Avenue in downtown Scottsdale.

The drivers of both cars, Mario Zavala and former Scottsdale resident Wendy MacDonald, were arrested for suspicion of driving while under the influence of alcohol, according to police reports.

At the time, MacDonald was heading north on Civic Center in a white 1998 Chevrolet van. She had stopped to make a left turn onto Third, according to the reports.

Mario Zavala and Gandara-Zavala were traveling south on Civic Center in a green 1999 Ford Expedition after spending the evening at a dinner function at the Doubletree La Posada Resort in Paradise Valley about 4 1/2 miles away.

Mario Zavala told police he approached the intersection as the traffic signal turned yellow. At about the same time, MacDonald tried to turn across the southbound lanes.

“I had very little time to react and I rammed into the right front portion of the van,” Mario Zavala wrote in a statement to police.

Officer Rodger Paliwoda noted in his report that Mario Zavala had an intoxicating beverage on his breath and his eyes were watery and bloodshot. Mario Zavala told officers he drank six Bud Lights between 6:30 and 11:15 p.m.

Emergency workers transported both drivers to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn hospital. MacDonald agreed to take a portable breath test. Mario Zavala refused. Both consented to providing blood samples.

The blood samples were tested at the Scottsdale police crime lab, which Gandara-Zavala oversees.

Four days after the car accident, crime lab manager Steven Valdez signed a report that indicated Mario Zavala had a blood-alcohol content of 0.028 percent, well below the legal limit, which at the time was 0.10 percent.

MacDonald told police she drank one Budweiser early the evening of the accident. Her breath test showed 0.11 percent. Valdez signed a report that her blood sample was 0.125 percent.

Although the Scottsdale lab tested the samples, the city attorney’s office recused itself from the matter because of a conflict of interest caused by Mario Zavala’s involvement, said deputy city attorney Deborah Robberson. Scottsdale transferred the matter to the Tempe city attorney to prosecute.

Charges against Mario Zavala were dismissed Dec. 12, 1999, but charges against MacDonald wound through the courts. Last year, MacDonald’s attorney, Lawrence Kazan, received an anonymous letter that questioned the propriety of the Scottsdale crime lab conducting the blood tests, given Gandara-Zavala’s connection to the case and oversight of the crime lab.

The letter noted that Valdez conducted the blood work and that Gandara-Zavala later hired Valdez’s wife to work in the crime lab, despite a city policy against nepotism. Valdez’s wife, Jennifer, was hired in December 2001.

The letter, which Kazan provided to the Tribune, states, “This blood test should never have been done by the Scottsdale Police Department Crime lab because it is a conflict of interest, it smells of cover up for a high ranking Police Executive’s husband.”

Kazan believes the letter was written by someone who works in the Scottsdale crime lab, but he doesn’t know who, he said.

Kazan said he showed the letter to Tempe prosecutor Andrew Davidson and told him he was suspicious of whether the samples had been switched or altered. Davidson called the suggestion a “smokescreen defense,” but said he agreed to reduce the charge to reckless driving on Jan. 30 this year because of the age of the case and other factors.

Kazan never had Mario Zavala’s and MacDonald’s blood samples independently tested because of the expense, he said. Rodbell rebutted any suggestion of a cover-up in the crime lab. “That would get my dander up because you’ve just insulted a great number of professionals who take their jobs seriously. And I don’t think they’re going to put it on the line for anybody’s husband,” the chief said.

DRUG INVESTIGATION

In his letter to the City Council, Keenom also discussed a drug investigation linked to Mario Zavala, who was suspected of affiliating with drug dealers in Scottsdale.

Keenom wrote that then-chief Bartosh and executive assistant chief of police Dee Taylor hindered undercover agents’ efforts to develop information based on a tip from informants. “They told Helen of her husband’s actions and told her it looked bad and to tell Mario to stop,” Keenom wrote.

Taylor offered a different version of events in a Feb. 19 deposition associated with the Steven Anderson lawsuit.

She said the investigation was prompted by an anonymous complaint and that she informed Gandara-Zavala only after a preliminary inquiry showed no concrete results.

Keenom did not provide the date of the investigation in his letter. Taylor stated in the deposition that she could not recall the time frame.

The city did not respond to a public records request by the Tribune for documentation related to the investigation.

Rodbell said Keenom’s letter prompted him to look into the matter and speak with those he called principal players. “The information that I got satisfied me to believe that no one in this organization committed an offense or committed an act that would have impacted a criminal investigation,” he said.

Union president Chet Anderson said he expects appropriate action will be taken if any improprieties turn up in either court case or through other means.

“If any of these things that are alleged actually occurred, I know that as a line-level employee, we wouldn’t last more than half a day without being put on suspension,” he said.

Littlefield, the councilman, said he plans to meet with Rodbell to discuss the issues in the coming week. “If those allegations are true — or any one of them are true — those are very, very serious,” he said.

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