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APS Top Cop Finds Himself on Hot Seat

By Colleen Heild
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
    Nearly 17 years ago, Gil Lovato took the reins of a school police agency racked by controversy.
    Now, as the veteran chief of the Albuquerque Public Schools police department, it is Lovato who finds himself on the hot seat.
    He's been on paid leave since Jan. 6, pending an internal audit of the school police department that still isn't complete. Normally, such audits take two weeks.
    Outside private investigators have also been called in.
    The scope of the inquiry has broadened beyond the initial examination of whether evidence room money was mishandled.
    Investigators in recent weeks have been questioning whether Lovato took liberties in running his department and whether he improperly directed APS resources to benefit one of his supervisors.
    They've also been looking at several investigations he ordered.
    Lovato, 60, has declined to comment publicly since being placed on leave.
    "The only thing I can accuse myself of is working hard," he told the Journal last month.
    The supervisor, Cynthia West, oversees the eight-person dispatch unit of the school police. She is a 20-year APS employee whose husband works as a school police lieutenant.
    West referred questions to her attorney, Kari Morrissey, who said last week she wouldn't comment about specifics because of the ongoing investigation.
    "What I can tell you is that I have talked to her (West) and she feels absolutely 100 percent confident that she has behaved professionally and ethically," Morrissey said. "She's never engaged in any type of misconduct, and we expect that this investigation is going to yield those results."
    School district officials— who had been sweating out a mill levy election until last week's "yes" vote— remain tight-lipped about the department probe.
    They have ordered police employees not to talk and say they don't know whether any aspect of the investigation results will ever be made public.
    Journal interviews with current and former school employees, along with documents obtained by the Journal, provide insight into areas of inquiry.
    For instance, during Lovato's tenure:
  • Nineteen people have contacted the school district's Equal Employment Opportunity office to complain about personnel issues in the police agency. Twelve of the complaints name Lovato as a respondent. Allegations include harassment, use of abusive language, sex discrimination and sexual harassment. APS won't say how any of those were resolved.
  • Hundreds of dollars seized as evidence were moved to the police agency's petty cash fund when the money should have been returned to district coffers.
  • No documentation exists for deposits into the petty cash fund and records are missing as to how money was spent.
  • West earned more than $5,000 in overtime last year. While on vacation, she was permitted to add to her paycheck by selling compensatory time back to APS.
  • During her monthlong vacation, Lovato made 91 calls to West on his APS cell phone, records show.
  • Lovato approved installing a high-tech surveillance camera at West's home and sent a team of APS detectives to Texas to investigate a suspect accused of harassing her on the telephone— a misdemeanor. No charges have followed.
  • West is the only civilian in the school district who has a take-home car. She drives an unmarked police car in an agency where a lack of vehicles has forced school police employees to double up or use personal cars to answer calls.
    Taking over a 'mess'
        Back in 1990, Lovato won out over 69 candidates who wanted to head what was then called APS school security.
        Lovato had been a captain with the Albuquerque Police Department at the time— winding up a career that had its ups and downs.
        He had a disciplinary record and was sent to "anger management," according to a newspaper account in 1985.
        Lovato called it "conflict management" and noted he had 80 letters of recommendation in his personnel file.
        Three days after retiring from APD, Lovato took over a school district police agency that outside auditors had characterized as a "mess" and "a disaster area."
        The agency of 130 employees is now called the APS Police Department and handles security and law enforcement duties for an 89,000-student district of 131 schools, according to the APS police Web site.
        Since Lovato took over as chief, his annual salary has jumped from $37,879 to $77,597. The agency's annual budget has nearly tripled and is now an estimated $2.7 million.
    'Unethical activity'
        APS documents show that, since the early 1990s, 12 of 19 people who contacted the district's EEO office about police department-related issues complained specifically about Lovato.
        Of those who complained, one is a well-known high school principal; another is a high-ranking APS official.
        APS spokesman Rigo Chavez wouldn't reveal the outcome of any of the complaints.
        In November, a former school police campus service aide filed a lawsuit against APS alleging employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment.
        Christine Apodaca alleges that Lovato denied her the opportunity to become a sworn law enforcement officer. She also accused him of belittling her in staff meetings, creating a hostile work environment and intimidating and threatening her.
        At least two unsigned letters were sent to APS officials over the past six months alleging, in the words of one letter, "immoral and unethical activity that has been taking place in our police department."
        The allegations weren't officially investigated until APS internal auditor Alan Wesson received information in January about problems with the school police evidence room.
    Take-home car
        Back in 1997, a member of the APS Board of Education asked during a public meeting why the school police dispatch supervisor needed a take-home car when district finances were tight.
        Lovato, according to a news report at the time, replied that the dispatch supervisor also served as the evidence clerk and was on call to enter crime evidence, such as confiscated items.
        School district spokesman Chavez said the APS police organizational chart currently shows West as having responsibility for evidence, "but she has not actually had that responsibility for the past three years."
        More recently, employees say, Lovato has defended West's take-home car, describing it as a "mobile communications dispatch center."
        Last year, APS budget cutbacks forced about three dozen district administrators to give up their take-home cars, according to news reports.
        But West was allowed to keep her car. Chavez said APS officials concluded that West and school police were deemed to be "emergency responders" and needed cars.
        A Journal survey of UNM police, APD and Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department shows none of their dispatch supervisors is permitted a take-home car.
        The shortage of APS police cars in recent months has forced some police officials to drive personal vehicles on the job.
        Meanwhile, campus police aides have been doubling up or tripling in police vehicles because there aren't enough cars to go around.
        Two new vehicles are expected to arrive later this month.
    $5,100 in overtime
        Investigators have also been looking into compensation issues.
        West, who earns $46,597 annually, claimed more than $5,100 in overtime in 2006.
        Nearly all of it was for working on Saturdays or Sundays.
        Most of the overtime was claimed in the latter part of 2006, while West accrued more than 128 hours of compensatory time from June 2005 to May 2006.
        Her reasons for the extra work were listed as "dispatch" or "dispatch shortage."
        Lovato generally signed off on her overtime.
        At times, her husband, Lt. Dave West, signed on Lovato's behalf.
        Since Lovato was placed on leave Jan. 6, West hasn't claimed any overtime. She had two hours of compensatory time last month.
        Last September, West announced in an internal e-mail that she would be on annual leave from Sept. 23 to Oct. 23 and an acting supervisor would take her place.
        West used 80 hours of compensatory time for the first two weeks and then took two weeks vacation leave.
        Investigators looked into a tip that she had paid overtime while she was on vacation.
        West was paid $304.10 in overtime following the week ending Oct. 6.
        But records show the overtime was for work she did in early September, before going on vacation.
        Records also show West sold back 20 hours of her accrued compensatory time to APS last October.
        Spokesman Chavez said he is not aware of any written policy allowing such a practice. He said it "is not a common practice," but added, that "it is not unheard of."
    Cell phone calls
        Investigators have also been looking at Lovato's cell phone calls.
        A Journal review of APS phone bills shows 460 calls were placed from Lovato's APS-issued cell phone to West's private cell phone during a six-month period from June 11 to Dec. 12 last year.
        During that time period, Lovato received 261 calls from West's private cell phone.
        Roughly 60 percent of the calls occurred after 5 p.m., on weekends or while West was on vacation.
        The dispatch office said West typically works days, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
        On Dec. 4, records show 56 calls from Lovato's APS phone to West's. The calls were made between 5:14 p.m. and 11:56 p.m.
        During West's vacation— which included a trip to Europe— 91 calls were made from Lovato's phone to West's.
        More recent records weren't available from APS.
    Surveillance camera
        Last May, the school police dispatch office began receiving hang-up calls. Then an anonymous caller began targeting Lovato and West in calls peppered with insults and abusive language.
        Before it was over, Lovato had put four different officers and a police computer technician on the case, which was a misdemeanor crime.
        Two APS detectives traveled to Odessa, Texas, to interview a suspect, and Lovato ordered a low-light night vision surveillance camera installed at West's home.
        The investigation was estimated to have cost more than $6,000 in overtime and travel.
        No arrests related to the telephone harassment case have been made. The camera can still be seen outside West's far Northeast home.
    Evidence room cash
        The issue that triggered the current inquiry was whether money seized as evidence from students during campus drug busts ended up being improperly converted to the petty cash fund controlled by Lovato.
        Lovato said in early January that his agency's petty cash fund amounted to only a few dollars a month, collected from copying charges for police reports requested by the public.
        But APS could produce no ledger or accounting for the fund over the past three years. APS was also unable to produce any records of deposits, even from fees for copying police reports.
        More than a dozen handwritten receipts APS turned over show Lovato tapped the fund to buy bottled water, soda for the office, and to get his patrol car washed in 2004 and 2006.
        There were no receipts for the year 2005.
        APS records show at least $300 was transferred to the petty cash fund after being seized as evidence and forfeited by a District Court judge in 2005.
        Other records obtained by the Journal show $1,085 was placed in a police department safe in late 1998— only to be depleted by a series of withdrawals.
        One document has handwritten entries showing six withdrawals of $165 or more at various times during 1999.
        The withdrawals appear to have been made by Lovato or his secretary, and most carry his initials.
        One handwritten note dated Sept. 23, 1999, states "$300 to Gil Lovato." Underneath that sentence is another handwritten note stating, "Returned $300 on 10/6/99."
        Another note dated Dec. 30, 1999, states "$200 to G. Lovato for flashlight Y2K."
        By September 2000, the last $165 was removed from the fund.
        "New balance from evidence is 0," states a handwritten notation.
        State law requires that money seized as evidence or "fruits of a crime" be returned either to the rightful owner or be forfeited.
        If a judge had approved a forfeiture, the money should have been returned to the APS general fund where administrators could allocate it back to the police department, according to former APS business officer Michael Vigil.
        Vigil said he would never have approved a loan from the fund.
        Lovato has said the money was transferred appropriately and was used to buy office supplies.
    Independent agency
        When Lovato was tapped for the APS job, he faced a major public relations task.
        His predecessor, security chief Daryl Harrell, had resigned in the wake of a Journal investigative report.
        According to story published in February 1990, Harrell and his operations assistant, Roxie Joyner, had spent work time together in a Sandia Mountains cabin.
        The story also reported Joyner had collected $25,000 overtime in a 30-month period. The Bernalillo County district attorney and the Albuquerque Police Department launched a joint investigation.
        No criminal charges were filed. But the APS-funded audit that followed was highly critical, citing a lack of accountability and professionalism within the department.
        School board member Leonard DeLayo was quoted back then as saying his primary concern is "what kind of system do we have that lends itself to no accountability."
        DeLayo, who didn't seek re-election and leaves the board March 1, said in a recent interview that he has heard nothing negative about the APS police agency with Lovato as chief.
        He added, "I think one of the issues with that department is that it traditionally has been independent, and I think as a result of that independence things tend to get skewed."