10:48 PM PDT on Thursday, May 26, 2011

By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY and IMRAN GHORI
The Press-Enterprise

Falsifying attendance at training courses to qualify San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies for higher pay was a common practice condoned and enforced by office supervisors, grand jury testimony shows.

Transcripts released this week revealed a training office supervisor told a visitor in 2009 that she had been padding attendance at deputy training courses for “the past 10 years….and they’ve been doing it before I got transferred up here.”

The claims were attributed to indicted sheriff’s training specialist Angela Gray by witness Michelle Grossi, who recounted a visit to Gray to discuss getting enough credentials for an advanced training certificate.

Grossi said Gray told her she would enroll her into deputy training classes even though Grossi told Gray she couldn’t attend all the classes.

“I told her, I said, that doesn’t sound right, are you sure, and she said, it’s no big deal,” Grossi testified. “…she kind of gave me the reassurance that it was just common practice within the Department.”

In early March, a grand jury indicted seven current and former San Bernardino County Sheriff’s employees with multiple charges of perjury, grand theft and conspiracy.

According to the indictment, Angela Gray, 42, and Sallyann Christian, 45, who worked at the sheriff’s training academy, falsified attendance records to indicate that Cpl. Detective David Pichotta, 48, retired Lt. William Maddox, 57, Lt. Russell Wilke, 44, retired Assistant Sheriff Michael Stodelle, 64, and retired Capt. Hobart Gray, 51 — who is married to Angela Gray — got credit for courses they didn’t attend.

Prosecutors say the defendants falsified credits they earned, allowing them to boost their salaries and receive increased retirement pay.

San Bernardino County Sheriff Rod Hoops said through a spokesperson that he has not read the transcripts and would not comment.

Hoops previously has said that he believes investigators have identified all those who were involved in the alleged fraud. Last week, he said that there could be additional “disciplinary action down the road,” but he did not elaborate.

At a news conference announcing the charges, District Attorney Mike Ramos said the alleged thefts ranged from $2,000 to as much as $100,000, when retirement increases are considered

The defendants have pleaded not guilty. They return to court for a hearing Aug. 26. Prosecutors say the defendants face penalties of between three years and eight months to five years and eight months in prison if convicted.

‘GREED AND THEFT’

The sheriff’s training academy in Devore is one of more than 600 agencies credentialed by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, to offer law enforcement training. Classes also are offered through San Bernardino Valley College.

Deputies earn credits through their courses that allow them to earn certificates through POST. The county’s contract with sheriff’s employees promises them pay increases when they move up in certification level.

In more than 500 pages of grand jury testimony from late February and early March, Grossi and 21 other witnesses detailed how defendants’ names were placed on course attendance lists to earn POST credentials.

Even though Pichotta, Maddox, Wilke, Stodelle and Hobart Gray never attended class, the courses were used to qualify them for raises.

“What this case boils down to is greed and theft,” Deputy District Attorney Daniel Silverman told the grand jury. “…People wanted to make more money and here was an easy way to do it.”

Grossi said in testimony that she was demoted from a sheriff’s deputy to a custody specialist as a result of her role in what Silverman referred to as “the POST scandal.”

She testified after signing an agreement with the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office that she will not be prosecuted if she testifies truthfully. She was one of two witnesses who received such assurances from prosecutors.

Revelation of discrepancies in her POST credential class transcripts led to an internal investigation of the training program in August 2009.

A secretary at the sheriff’s academy who Grossi approached to get POST certification noticed she had two “F’s” and became suspicious — testimony before the grand jury indicated “F” grades usually meant failure to attend the class.

“To your knowledge, is this what … broke open this investigation that we’re talking about here today?” Silverman asked lead investigator Lt. Stephen Dorsey.

“Yes. That’s what brought attention to what was going on here,” he said.

During the grand jury proceedings, Silverman said that the investigation began as an administrative investigation into Hobart Gray and Grossi but became a criminal investigation as other suspects were identified.

That administrative investigation has been put on hold until the criminal investigation is completed, he said.

TWO PLACES AT ONCE

Grand jury testimony outlined how investigators recognized signs that someone had signed up for a class they did not take, such as names consistently appearing on either the top or bottom of a sign-up sheet, suggesting someone had listed their names ahead of time or added them afterward.

The sign-in sheets also had signatures that did not match verified signatures, and incomplete information such as missing or incorrect rank and no employee number. And the targets of the investigation seemed to be taking courses that had little to do with their current jobs.

“So it was kind of a systematic pattern that we started to look at and as we recognized these patterns we actually went through class files from 1999 forward, looking for other suspected rosters,” testified Dorsey, who now supervises training for the department.

Dorsey said investigators also checked travel reimbursement requests filed by the suspects against the time they should have been attending their classes.

With Stodelle, Dorsey noted that travel reimbursement claims for trips to Rialto and Victorville in October 2000 matched the days he was supposed to be in a gang awareness class.

“In essence, is it fair to say, Lieutenant, that we have documents that seem to show that this individual, Mr. Stodelle was in two places at one time?,” Silverman asked.

“That is correct,” Dorsey answered.

Testimony suggested complaints preceding the investigation were not addressed.

Instructor Gordon Clemmer testified that he had “vented” about planted roster names and no-shows to classrooms to then-Sgt. Mark Plemondon, who had oversight of Advance Officer Training. The transcripts show Clemmer noticed the problems in 2008 and 2009, but it is not clear when he complained about them.

Nothing came of it, Clemmer said.

“It upset me that somebody would add a name to my roster without me knowing about it for several reasons. Not the least of which being liability issues we would face,” Clemmer testified.

Since the investigation, the Sheriff’s Department changed its sign-in procedures for training classes.

Students are now required to show a photo ID and sign an attendance sheet so signatures can be compared later if necessary.

Training staff now physically verify attendance three times the first day and at the beginning and end of each day for the remainder of the course. Instructors must also sign in.

‘RUNNING THE SHOW’

Grand jury witnesses said Angela Gray and Christian essentially had free rein to run the training academy and made it difficult for those who didn’t follow their orders.

A clerk and two assistants who worked in the training academy said they were often told by Gray and Christian to add the names of Stodelle, Hobart Gray, Michelle Grossi, Pichotta and Wilke to class rosters.

Stacy Asboth, who worked as an office assistant at the training center, said she felt she had no choice but to follow their instructions. Asboth, who was granted immunity for her testimony, said Angela Gray could have a “very bad temper.”

Asboth and another office assistant, Giovanna Lowell, said Angela Gray made it known that her husband was a captain and expected a certain amount of respect.

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