Both the city of Colton and its former police chief, Ken Rulon, are in the final stages of preparation as Rulon’s wrongful termination suit over his April 2007 firing heads to trial February 27.
Rulon, who was provided with a $132,000 base salary and more than $60,000 in benefits, is seeking $10 million for wrongful termination, defamation, damage to his reputation and harm to his current and future earning potential because of the city’s actions. He maintains that he was fired because he had acted as a whistleblower by sending a report pertaining to an embezzlement of public money by a former city council member and dereliction on the part of other city officials to the district attorney’s office.
City officials contend the oftentimes abrasive police chief’s dictatorial management style was an impediment to the smooth function of the police department and the city was acting within the scope of its authority when it sacked him.
At the basis of the firing and resultant lawsuit is the action of former city councilman Ramon Hernandez and a series of charges made against his city issued credit card. Those cards are issued to certain senior city officials in Colton, including the mayor and city council members, to cover the cost of doing official business, such as traveling to or attending conferences, conventions, seminars or intergovernmental functions.
On December 22, 2004, a $98.91 charge was logged on Hernandez’s city credit card for an overnight stay at the Amerihost Inn in Fontana, less than ten miles from Hernandez’s home. Hernandez reimbursed the city for the bill. In May, June and July 2005, Hernandez made a spate of charges against his city issued credit card totaling $2,928 at a variety of hotels and motels in the Inland Valley area. In late May 2005, Hernandez told then-city manager Daryl Parrish and then-mayor Deirdre Bennett that he believed the card had been stolen by his nephew. Hernandez pledged to recover the card and see that the city was reimbursed for the charges. No police report was taken. Nor was the credit card cancelled. Beginning on June 11, 2005, unauthorized calls on Hernandez’s city issued cell phone began, mostly to phone sex lines, consisting of adults-only chat lines based in Iowa, Northern California and Riverside. Hernandez claimed that his cell phone had been “cloned.” For a time the unauthorized calls from his number ceased but between January and May of 2006 the calls resumed, entailing charges of $675. Also between April 20 and June 3, 2006, Hernandez ran up another $1,854 in charges against his city-issued credit card for local hotel rooms.
The full council was not informed of the unauthorized activity on Hernandez’s credit card. Rather, according to Bennett, she was initially informed about the matter by Parrish in May 2005, who assured her the matter would be handled discreetly and expeditiously. She said Parrish provided her with an assurance at that time that the unauthorized billings would not occur again. When she learned early in 2006 that the unauthorized charges against Hernandez’s credit card were continuing, she said she asked Parrish for a full accounting of the matter and the charges to that date against Hernandez’s city credit and phone accounts. She said Parrish again assured her that the matter would be resolved and counseled against bringing the police department into the matter. Parrish advised her against withholding payment on the credit and phone bills to avoid damaging the city’s credit rating and she accordingly signed off on the expenses under her authority as mayor without the remainder of the council, with the exception of then-councilman John Mitchell, being informed. Mitchell, who was also Colton’s mayor pro tem, on one occasion signed off on the city’s payment of the credit card bills, as did Parrish. Bennett said Parrish told her reimbursement of the bills from Hernandez would be forthcoming.
Over the next several months, however, Hernandez made no payment to the city and on June 7 the city’s finance department cancelled his credit card.
On June 20, Rulon learned of the unauthorized charges against Hernandez’s credit card and initiated an investigation of the matter. Later that day, just before that evening’s city council meeting commenced, Mitchell used his personal credit card to reimburse the city for the $5,457 outstanding against Hernandez’s city-issued credit card. Hernandez would later claim he repaid Mitchell after the meeting concluded. A week later, on June 27, Rulon questioned Hernandez about the credit card billings. Rulon phoned the public integrity unit of the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office to provide a tentative synopsis of his findings, and forwarded his report of the alleged embezzlement and the delay in city administrators’ handling of the issue to the head of the public integrity unit, Frank Vanella, sometime thereafter.
On August 18, 2006, district attorney’s investigators obtained warrants to search Hernandez’s City Hall office and home, where they seized two computers, a BlackBerry and documents. On August 24, 2006 Hernandez was arrested at his home and booked into Central Detention Center in San Bernardino on 24 felony counts under California Penal Code Section 424 related to the misappropriation of public funds stemming from the improper use of his city credit card and cell phone.
In the weeks thereafter, the public integrity unit was reported to be looking into whether other Colton city officials had acted illegally in assisting Hernandez or delaying or obstructing an investigation into his action.
In October 2006, Parrish without city council authorization hired an outside investigator to look into accusations made against Rulon in anonymous letters delivered to City Hall. The letters alleged Rulon had misused his authority and was creating a hostile work environment within the police department. One letter reported Rulon bought an ATV and a motorcycle from Quaid Harley-Davidson in Loma Linda while in his police uniform and on duty; had imposed citation and arrest quotas on Colton police officers that were charted on a bulletin board on a wall at the police department headquarters and that he had not promoted deserving Latino officers, creating morale problems that prompted some officers to leave the department for positions elsewhere. Rulon was also accused of sexually harassing female employees.
In March 2007, while the investigation commissioned by Parrish was yet to conclude, the Colton Police Officers’ Association cast an 85-6 vote of no-confidence against Rulon, questioning his ability to lead the department. On March 6, 2007 Parrish put Rulon on paid administrative leave. A month later, Rulon was terminated.
In his lawsuit, Rulon is represented by attorneys Bradley Gage and Virginia Keeny. They maintain that the city had no grounds to fire the police chief and that he was shown the door because he had informed the district attorney’s office of the matter involving Hernandez and the apparent effort of Parrish and others to cover the embezzlement up.
They maintain that Rulon undertook to investigate the embezzlement and inform the district attorney against the wishes of other city officials. Rulon prepared a statement relating to the case but before it was released, according to Keeny, Parrish commandeered that statement, tore it up and issued another self serving version of events that credited City Hall rather than the police department with undertaking an aggressive accounting of Hernandez’s actions.
Rulon maintains that City Hall, and Parrish in particular, discouraged and resisted the matter being taken up by prosecutors. Rulon is counting on Vanella testifying on his behalf to the effect that it was Rulon who brought the matter to the district attorney’s office’s attention. Keeny further believes she can demonstrate that Parrish defamed Rulon when he stated to a reporter that Rulon was a “psychopathic megalomaniac,” was otherwise mentally unstable and that he was incapable of maintaining authority over the officers in his department.
In this way, lawyers for both the city and Rulon are likely to reference an event that occurred after Rulon was terminated from Colton. In July 2010, then-interim Montebello city administrator Randy Narramore hired Rulon to serve as Montebello’s police chief to permanently replace previous Montebello police chief Dan Weast, who resigned under pressure in January 2010 after 13 officers with that department filed a lawsuit against Weast in 2009, accusing him of retaliation and cronyism. Narramore, who was chief of police in Huntington Park from 1995 until 2006, had supervised Rulon for eight years. Rulon was on the Huntington Park police force from 1986 until he left to become police chief in Colton in 2003. Narramore, who went on to a career in municipal administration after he retired as a law enforcement officer, served as Montebello’s interim city administrator from April 2007 to January 2008 and was brought back as Montebello’s interim city administrator in December 2009. A month later, following Weast’s departure, the Montebello city council saw fit to allow him to serve in the dual capacity of city administrator and police chief. But Narramore’s move to hire Rulon six months later proved disastrous. Rulon lasted only two days as police chief in Montebello before a firestorm of controversy erupted, based in large measure upon his forced exodus from Colton and the vote of no confidence by the police union there. Rulon was sent packing from Montebello 48 hours after he arrived, despite Narramore’s claim that Rulon was chosen from a field of 47 candidates by Bob Murray and Associates, a search firm hired to recruit for the position. Narramore then fell victim to his selection of Rulon and was forced to resign as interim city administrator for having engaged in cronyism for hiring his former underling.
While Colton’s lawyers are likely to point to the debacle in Montebello as evidence that other municipal officials see Rulon’s leadership credentials as questionable, Keeny is intent on portraying Rulon’s forced departure from there before he had an opportunity to demonstrate his proficiency as a police chief as an outgrowth of the damage that was done to Rulon’s reputation and professional standing in Colton. Rulon has not been successful in finding other work in law enforcement and now supports himself with work as a licensed private investigator.
Keeny maintains material in the possession of the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office will establish that Rulon submitted evidence to prosecutors indicating Parrish was attempting to bury details pertaining to Hernandez’s misappropriations. Ultimately, the case came to a conclusion in January 2008, when Hernandez pleaded guilty to 24 charges of misuse of public funds. Because Rulan reported the matter to the DA’s office, Keeny maintains, Parrish retaliated against him.
In the city’s defense, attorney John Higginbotham is prepared to show that Rulon’s contract clearly and unequivocally stated that he could be fired without cause at any time for any reason and that he served at the sole discretion of the city manager. Higginbotham is prepared to demonstrate the Colton Police Officers Association had expressed a clear and overwhelming lack of faith in Rulon’s ability to lead the department.
City officials made motions to have the case dismissed, but in October 2010 San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Frank Gafkowski ruled that Rulon’s claims of retaliation, defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress should be heard by a jury.