August 30, 2014

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Flores’ emails subpoenaed

LORAIN — The Lorain Police Department wants to read Lorain City Councilman Dennis Flores’ emails and review his phone records as part of an investigation into how information on misconduct allegations against police officers became public.
The city has served Flores with a subpoena for the names of his phone and email service providers.
Geoffrey Smith, the city’s human resources/risk management director, said the subpoena was issued at the request of Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera as part of the leak investigation.
He said the Police Department intends to issue subpoenas to the companies providing those services to gain access to Flores’ emails, text messages and other records.
Flores said he isn’t happy with the subpoena.
“It’s disturbing that they’re on this fishing expedition,” he said.
The subpoena comes on the heels of Flores’ testimony last month in an arbitration hearing over a police union grievance filed in August that complains that details about investigations into officers Ralph Gonzalez and Jeff Jackson were made public.
Gonzalez fell under investigation after a gun he reported destroyed in a 2011 house fire turned up during a felony warrant arrest. Police believe two other city-owned weapons issued to Gonzalez are still on the black market.
The investigation into Gonzalez ended when he retired in September, but Rivera had recommended the veteran officer receive a 60-day suspension.
Jackson remains under investigation for scheduling and attendance issues.
According to the grievance, the city had a responsibility under the police contract to conduct disciplinary matters in “a private and businesslike manner.”
Rivera, who did not return a call seeking comment Friday, wrote in his response to the grievance that the Police Department wasn’t responsible for the release of the information and that how it happened was the subject of an internal investigation.
Smith and Mayor Chase Ritenauer both said the plans to review Flores’ electronic communications are justified as part of the city’s efforts to defend itself from the grievance.
“He indicated in his testimony that there was a leak in the Police Department and the Police Department wants to know who that is,” Smith said.
Mike Duff, Flores’ attorney, called the plans to review Flores’ communications “Nixonian.”
“What Rivera wants to do is compile a hit list of people who are dissatisfied with and critical of the Police Department,” he said.
Duff said a review of Flores’ emails and texts would reveal to police anyone who has complained to the councilman over the years about Lorain police and could be used to go after critics.
“It’s none of their business who he talked to about the Police Department,” he said.
Ritenauer said while Flores and others have a right to criticize the Police Department, the city has an obligation to follow the contract with the police union and defend itself against the grievance.
Beyond that, Ritenauer argued, any communications Flores had with anyone about city business is subject to public records laws even if those communications took place on a private cell phone or email account.
“If it has to do with city business and he’s a sitting city councilman, it would fall under public records law,” Ritenauer said.
He said there might be discrepancies between what Flores said during the arbitration hearing and what could be in his email and phone records.
Ritenauer also said he already has turned over communications he had with Flores about the Police Department to investigators.
Duff said he isn’t certain that Flores’ private emails and texts are subject to public disclosure and he intends to fight the subpoena.
Flores has something of a checkered past with the Lorain Police Department. He has been arrested several times over the years, most recently on a DUI charge after missing his driveway in a van that ended up in a neighbor’s yard. He acknowledged drinking Christmas ale to police, but has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Flores also was one of a handful of City Council members who suggested that Rivera leave his job after the U.S. Department of Justice wrapped up a four-year-long investigation into the Police Department last year.
That investigation, widely believed to have been sparked by complaints forwarded to Washington by Councilwoman Anne Molnar and former Councilman Mitch Fallis, determined that there had been a pattern of excessive force and sexual abuse by members of the Lorain Police Department before the probe began in 2008.
The Justice Department concluded that while those problems were no longer present, the Police Department needed to make changes to prevent them from recurring. It also criticized Lorain police command staff for failing to address the problems.
Ritenauer said Friday that the city is still in the process of reviewing the Justice Department’s recommendation that it “investigate and remedy command deficiencies that permitted LPD’s past use of excessive force.”
This also isn’t the first time Lorain police have been accused of trying to silence critics through the use of police powers.
Lorain police raided the Wickliffe home of Joseph Montelon, who was suspected of writing a string of anti-police letters sent to the media and elected officials, in August 2008.
Although police contend that the letters constituted menacing, Montelon and his supporters, including Molnar, have argued that the raid was an effort to muzzle a detractor.
Montelon, a former Lorain police officer and convicted sex offender, has never publicly acknowledged writing the letters and has never been charged. Last year a federal judge threw out a lawsuit he filed against Rivera and others over the constitutionality of the raid.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.