Hiring of chief’s relative questioned

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 07:44 PM

Aside from addressing whether Police Chief Jose Lopez disparaged a local lawyer, city officials are looking into whether a relative of his received preferential treatment before being hired as a Durham police officer.
Both issues figure in a probe City Manager Tom Bonfield hopes to wrap up on Tuesday – and both are part of the fallout of an assistant chief’s equal-employment-opportunity complaint against the city.
Caitlyn Thomson, lawyer for Assistant Chief Winslow Forbes, confirmed that Forbes had questioned the treatment of Lopez’s relative in a written complaint earlier this year to the city Human Resources Department and again on July 16 in a meeting with Bonfield.
The relative, Ramon Grillasca, is the nephew of Lopez’s wife, Rebecca Lopez. He hired on with the Police Department earlier this year.
Supporters of Forbes have raised three different questions about the hiring, starting with the family tie, continuing with the fact that Grillasca has a court record in Florida and focusing now on whether higher-ups intervened to help him make it through the screening process.
Bonfield on Friday indicated officials are looking mostly at the third of those questions, as neither the family tie nor the Florida record were “new news.”
“The issue is whether the process was followed or whether there was undue influence or on how things were handled from a consistency standpoint,” Bonfield said.
The manager on July 18 told The Herald-Sun that the family tie is “is not covered” under local or state anti-nepotism policies. And “it was vetted” during the hiring process, he added.
On Friday, Bonfield also said Grillasca’s record had “had been reviewed and cleared by the state” officials who regulate the hiring of sworn police officers.
A check of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement database indicates that Grillasca in August 2002 faced two misdemeanor worthless-check charges that prosecutors dropped less than a month later.
He landed in trouble again in January 2004 with a fresh charge of uttering a false instrument, a catch-all term for various types of forgery. Florida authorities initially considered it a felony, but they eventually allowed Grillasca to plead to a misdemeanor bad-check charge on payment of a $200 fine, $45 in restitution and $108 in court costs.
The plea was entered in May 2007, after Grillasca faced an additional count of failing to appear to answer the 2004 charge. It went on the books as an “adjudication withheld,” a label similar to North Carolina’s “prayer for judgment” that falls short of being a formal conviction.
In North Carolina, a criminal record doesn’t necessarily disqualify a person from getting a job as a sworn police officer.
The state bars the hiring of convicted felons, but says a single Class B misdemeanor is disqualifying only if it occurred “within the five-year period prior to the date of application for employment.”
A string of four more or Class B misdemeanors – the sort that includes bad-check charges – is disqualifying “regardless of the date of conviction.”
The concern about upper-level intervention stems from an affidavit Forbes’ supporters have produced from former Police Department detective, Anthony Scott, that claims Grillasca should have been “put out” of the department’s hiring process.
Scott in the affidavit indicated he helped do background checks of applicants, and said he’d asked Grillasca for his Florida records.
Scott claimed Grillasca told him “he had left them at home in Florida,” but 30 minutes or so later “reappeared with the requested documents” and on questioning said they were in his vehicle.
The detective considered the initial claim a lie, of the sort made by “an applicant who does not have the best criminal history [and tries] to control a background investigation with missing documents, excuses and denials.”
A rejection and lifetime disqualification from a DPD job “is standard policy for anyone who lies during the entire [hiring] process,” Scott said in the affidavit.
He added that he notified his then-supervisors, Sgt. Terrance Sembly and Cpl. Michael Grissom, and was told by Sembly that Grillasca “‘would be hired’ and there would be no further discussion of the matter.”
Bonfield confirmed Friday that the Scott affidavit is part of the probe. “Apparently it’s been provided to a lot of people,” he said, adding that he first saw it on Aug. 23 after local activist Victoria Peterson gave him a copy.
Peterson, a supporter of Forbes, wrote Mayor Bill Bell to say she believes Lopez should be “immediately removed” as chief and Grillasca should be fired.
Forbes’ U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission discrimination and retaliation complaint stems from his being passed over early this year for a promotion to deputy chief.
Thomson said Forbes on Feb. 28 began by asking the city human resources staff to look into the handling of the promotion process. He updated his request some weeks later after Lopez named Anthony Marsh the new deputy chief for administration.
Forbes in raising the issue with human resources “went into some pretty deep detail” about the hiring of Grillasca, as an example of how the Police Department’s hiring and promotion practices are at times circumvented, Thomson said.
Lopez said he could not comment.