City: Nothing improper in hiring of Lopez relative

Sep. 05, 2013 @ 08:04 PM

City officials say they’ve closed the book on complaints that a relative of Police Chief Jose Lopez received preferential treatment in being hired as a Durham police officer.

Investigators from the city’s Audit Services Department “found no evidence of improper decisions or influence to support the allegation or overturn the hiring of the police officer in question,” officials said in a formal statement Thursday afternoon.

The statement alluded to the questions raised about the hiring of Ramon Grillasca, a nephew of Lopez’s wife.

Officials issued the statement after a closed-door meeting of the City Council that City Attorney Patrick Baker requested to discuss a matter of attorney/client privilege. Baker later confirmed the topic had been the results of the Grillasca review.

The statement said auditors had reviewed the Police Department’s hiring process and questioned those involved in it.

They also checked with the N.C. Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission, “which reviewed, interviewed and verified” Grillasca’s eligibility to become a sworn law enforcement officer.

“At this time, and without more specific and substantiating evidence of wrongdoing, the city considers this matter closed,” the statement said.

The hiring became a matter of controversy after an assistant police chief, Winslow Forbes, complained first to city officials and eventually the federal government about having been passed over for a promotion to deputy chief.

While arguing that discrimination and retaliation factored into that decision, Forbes raised the Grillasca hiring as an example of circumvention of department procedures.

Forbes supporters saw three main issues at stake, first whether the hiring amounted to nepotism, then whether Grillasca should have been hired because of an arrest record that included several bad-check charges in Florida and finally whether higher-ups intervened to help him make it through the screening process despite that record.

“Those were all vetted, and unfounded,” City Manager Tom Bonfield said Thursday, adding that an alleged “felony piece” to the Florida matter was “not correct.”

Florida records indicate that prosecutors there dropped two of the charges; the third was addressed with the Florida equivalent of North Carolina’s prayer for judgment and payment of $45 in restitution plus a fine and court costs.

Officials issued the statement as a protest led by community activist Victoria Peterson was occurring Thursday afternoon in front of Durham Police Headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street.

Demonstrators called for Lopez to be fired or resign. Their allegations included claims that police target the poor and people of color and that Lopez practiced nepotism when he hired his wife’s nephew as a police officer.

Four protesters had shown up mid-way through the two-hour protest.

In an interview earlier in the day, Lopez said he couldn’t comment on the allegations and that he has no reason to resign.

Mayor Bill Bell said the council would leave the matter to Bonfield.

“The investigation has been done and we accept the result of the investigation, at least I do,” Bell said.

Thursday’s statement didn’t address a second matter auditors have been reviewing, about whether Lopez made comments disparaging a local lawyer injured in a recent shooting.

Bonfield said that portion of the inquiry is “getting wrapped up” and will produce an additional announcement from the city “soon.”