Thursday, November 23, 2006

CHP Promotional Exam Tossed For Irregularities - September 24, 2005, Sac Bee Capitol Bureau

CHP promotional exam tossed for irregularities
By John Hill -- Bee Capitol Bureau
September 24, 2005

Setting it straight: A story on Page A1 Saturday about a flawed promotional exam at the California Highway Patrol stated that a federal judge dismissed a sexual harassment complaint made by a female officer. While the judge dismissed those complaints against an individual, Assistant Chief Hubert A. Acevedo, he allowed them to proceed with regard to the CHP.

In a rare move, the State Personnel Board threw out a promotional exam for one of the highest ranks at the
California Highway Patrol, ruling that the oral test for deputy chief was so riddled with irregularities that there was no way to tell which of the 17 candidates should have passed.

The board's recent audit of the June 2004 exam found that the CHP could not produce the notes taken by two panel members conducting the exam, including former Commissioner Dwight O. "Spike" Helmick, contrary to personnel guidelines.

The exam panel had three members. One, who wasn't named, challenged some competitors' responses, prompted others and tossed the exam materials across a desk in a way that one applicant considered hostile, the audit said.

Completed last month, the report found that the exam panel showed possible bias against one applicant, Hubert A. Acevedo. Acevedo earlier had announced his desire to succeed Helmick as commissioner. He says Helmick vehemently opposed that effort. "I've been saying for 18 months that I have been the victim of politically motivated retaliation by the previous CHP administration for putting in for commissioner," Acevedo said. "Clearly, the SPB audit validates my view."

Helmick denied he had anything against Acevedo. "I have no fight with Mr. Acevedo," he said. "No one did anything purposely improper."

The audit comes on the heels of the discovery last year that a captain on a sergeant's exam panel handed out the questions to a candidate, and allegations in a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit that the CHP's exam process is fraught with bias and subjectivity. The plaintiffs lost the lawsuit, which is on appeal, but say that the recent audit validates some of their charges about the tests' unfairness.

"The exam on its face looks like it's fair," said Della Bahan, attorney for plaintiff Jeff Paige. "But there are so
many ways to manipulate the system to get who they want."

CHP Commissioner Mike Brown, who took over the top job after the flawed deputy chief's exam, said the department dealt with the isolated testing problems as they cropped up. He rejected the idea that irregularities are prevalent or that the various incidents are related. At the same time, Brown said safeguards have been put in place to assure the fairness of a new deputy chief's exam, which is under way.

The CHP, for instance, now will keep the notes taken by panel members who conduct the tests, instead of letting the panelists keep them. The Personnel Board also will oversee the new deputy chief's test, including reviewing "every piece of paper," said Karen Coffee, chief of the board's merit employment and technical resources division.

The board already decertified Paula Guzman, chairwoman of the deputy chief's exam panel, who was paid an hourly rate to oversee test panels for the CHP and other state departments. "That's the person, in our opinion, who fell down on the job," Coffee said.

Guzman, who lives in Fresno, declined to comment.

The Personnel Board has no plans to review other recent tests overseen by Guzman, Coffee said, unless it discovers irregularities in another exam.

The deputy chief's exam was meant to determine which assistant chiefs would become eligible for promotion to the higher rank, responsible for top-level administration. About 16 deputy chiefs oversee an operation of 10,000 CHP workers. They report to the commissioner's office.

Acevedo, an assistant chief who took the exam, raised questions about it after panel members questioned him about disciplinary actions taken against him called "memoranda of direction." Acevedo maintained during the exam that it was improper for the panel to bring up a personnel action that centered on a
telephone conversation he had with a retired officer.

Acevedo had complained that the department allowed some officers to continue working past the mandatory retirement age of 60, and had talked about alerting the media to it.

Acevedo also had received a memorandum related to an incident in which he allegedly showed others in the
department explicit photographs of a CHP officer with whom he'd had a consensual affair. The female officer filed a lawsuit. A federal judge dismissed her allegations of sexual harassment, leaving a complaint of invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress still to be decided.

Because of the questions raised about the deputy chief's exam, CHP Commissioner Brown in April asked the State Personnel Board to review it. The audit found several inadequacies. Some had to do with violations of strict procedures required of all state promotional exams. The CHP, for instance, failed to show that the exam questions were related to the duties of deputy chief and didn't fully document how it determined final

The interviewing panel showed possible bias against Acevedo, the audit found, because it asked him about the "memoranda of direction" but failed to do so with other candidates.

On the day of the test, the audit said, CHP Chief Counsel Jonathan Rothman sent Bob Giannoni, the chief of personnel, an e-mail that included the question about the personnel action to be asked only of Acevedo. The question then was passed along to the interviewing panel, which included Helmick, Guzman and CHP Deputy Commissioner Manny Padilla, who was also seeking the commissioner job.

"It was not appropriate for the panel to ask any questions that were not asked of all competitors; nor is it
appropriate to accept information from an outside source during the interview process," the audit stated.

Former Commissioner Helmick said that the panel members had been assured beforehand that the question was proper. "This is the highest rank in the Highway Patrol," he said. "If you can't ask something of that nature, then shame on all of us."

The Personnel Board would not release the name of the panel member who it found had challenged some candidates and asked others leading questions. The board said it doesn't normally name people in reports who are not being disciplined. Because the name is not in the report, it is not a public record, the board said.

The CHP initially urged the Personnel Board not to kill the whole test, because that would punish worthy officers who passed the exam and had nothing to do with the irregularities. "We had some people in good faith who came into that examination and did a good job," said Commissioner Brown.

A number of deputy chief vacancies have been held open, Brown said, causing an inconvenience but not a major effect on operations.

In November, the CHP demoted a captain two ranks to sergeant after it discovered he had discussed the questions in a sergeant's exam with one applicant. That applicant then talked about the test questions with several others, leading to the exam's cancellation.

Rick A. Linson is appealing his demotion to sergeant. He could not be reached for comment.

No comments: