Probation Corrections Officer and SEBA member Charles Ramirez, who was fired from his position in January 2004 based on allegations of assaulting two minors at the West Valley Detention Center, has been exonerated of all wrongdoing and returned to duty by the San Bernardino County Civil Service Commission. The commission’s decision could not come soon enough for Ramirez and his family, who endured 14 months of financial devastation that resulted in emotional turmoil and the loss of their home. LDF panel attorney Bill Hadden of Silver, Hadden and Silver, represented Ramirez.
The investigation against the officer began after a minor was overhead by a staff member at a group home to say that Ramirez had abused him at West Valley. The minor, who had been sent to the group home as a result of his chronically dysfunctional behavior, was then interviewed by department investigators, to whom he related a different story.
When further questioned by department investigators, the minor identified numerous minors still in custody at West Valley as well as West Valley staff members who could allegedly corroborate his claims of abuse. Shortly thereafter, the department transferred staff members from the unit where the minor was allegedly assaulted. However, other minors purported to be witnesses or victims were allowed to remain on the unit with daily contact with one another.
The department’s own investigation clearly showed that: 1) no minors had made fresh complaints to anyone be they parents, lawyers, probation officers or medical personnel, despite the minors’ ready access to same, 2) no grievances were filed, and 3) no physical evidence existed of the alleged beatings. Moreover, the stories of the various minors were grossly inconsistent with each other. Some versions were, upon scrutiny, found by the department to be “urban legends”, with no basis in fact. Staff members who were implicated as potential abusers or witnesses not only did not support the minors’ stories, but were in fact exonerated by the department of any misconduct. Notwithstanding that the department’s evidence against Ramirez consisted solely of the uncorroborated and inconsistent musings of troubled minors, whose versions would be undoubtedly contradicted by exonerated staff members in any subsequent litigation, the department proceeded to propose Ramirez’ termination.
That proposal consisted of a huge package of materials to which Ramirez was only given five days to respond. The package did not include approximately 20 hours of poor-quality audio taped interviews which were immediately requested by Ramirez’ counsel, and only provided three days before the hearing. Despite the volume of materials, the department refused to extend the date that it had unilaterally set for the Skelly hearing.
Hadden nonetheless managed to review the tapes prior to the hearing and demonstrated to the department that considerable exculpatory evidence on the tapes had been completely ignored in the investigative summaries. He demanded additional documentary evidence in the department’s possession, which he claimed would be exculpatory, and a second Skelly hearing at which to discuss the matter further. The department produced the documents, and at the second hearing Hadden showed that the new materials further undermined the credibility of the department’s witnesses. Despite the overwhelming evidence attesting to the lack of credibility of the accusers, the department refused to modify a single charge.
Ramirez appealed his subsequent termination to the commission. Hearing Officer Mark Burstein heard the case over six dates between August and November of 2004. In March 2005, Burstein issued his recommendation to the commission, in which he predictably found that the testimony of the county’s witnesses “corroborated little to nothing of each other’s testimony”, was “replete with inconsistencies and contradictions” and “significantly different” from versions given to investigators. Further noting that the county’s witnesses were heavily medicated, outwardly hostile, and tainted by extensive criminal histories, Burstein said he found no reason to believe any of the accusers or the alleged corroborating witnesses. He recommended to the commission that Ramirez be exonerated of all misconduct and returned to duty with full back pay and benefits. On March 23, 2005, the commission adopted Burstein’s recommendation, from which the county will not appeal. Of course, if the administration then in charge of the department had carefully reviewed its own evidence, all of this would have been unnecessary.
Said Ramirez, “I’m just glad to be back to work. In the 14 months I have been off, our administration has dramatically changed, and it appears that the new administration is doing a much better job of listening to its employees. Hopefully, this will continue, because I would hate to see anyone else experience what I have gone through. I am extremely grateful to LDF and for the excellent representation that I received.”