Local News

Jun 6, 2014 2:02 AM by Caroline Lowe

Abitration hearing for fired SMPD supervisor enters 5th day on Friday

Several former and current Santa Maria police officers and supervisors are scheduled to testify Friday, the 5th day of a public arbitration hearing for fired Lieutenant Dan Ast.

Chief Ralph Martin fired Ast in March 2013 for his handling of the investigation of Officer Albert Covarrubias Jr. Covarrubias was fatally shot by another SMPD officer when two supervisors attempted to arrest him on allegations he was having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old police explorer.

At the time of the shooting, Covarrubias was on-duty and assigned to a DUI checkpoint in the city. The officer who shot Covarrubias was Matt Kline, his best friend who was also on duty at the traffic assignment.

Ast was one of two high-ranking police supervisors working that night in January 2012 whom Chief Martin fired. The other was former Commander Craig Ritz.

Ritz is scheduled to take the stand at the hearing on Friday, along with retired Lieutenant Rico Flores who was supervising the DUI checkpoint.

Earlier this week, Chief Martin testified that he fired Ast for "gross mismanagement" and for allegedly failing to listen to officers who raised safety questions about about arresting Covarrubias on duty.

Martin also accused Ast of deciding to make the arrest at at the checkpoint to embarrass Lt. Flores, saying he was jealous of the amount of overtime money Flores earned from that assignment.

"Albert Covarrubias did not deserve the death penalty," testified Chief Martin.

Ast testified Commander Ritz was the supervisor who ordered Covarrubias to be arrested while at work.

Ast's attorney, Jonathan Miller, called Ast an "exemplary" officer with a spotless record in his 23 years in law enforcement.

Miller claims Ast was fired as retaliation for being a "whistle blower" who complained about alleged sexual misconduct by SMPD officers and safety concerns. Ast and two other lieutenants made those complaints 12 days before the Covarrubias shooting.

Miller also alleged that other officers knew about the alleged sexual relationship between Covarrubias and the teenager,but failed to report their suspicions as required by mandatory reporting laws.

At Thursday's hearing, Miller also criticized Chief Martin for not reporting those officers to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney to revue. In testimony earlier this week, the chief said the officers' suspicions did not reach the level of a reportable crime.

Danny Macagni was the SMPD police chief at the time of the Covarrubias shooting. He abruptly resigned in August of 2012 and Martin was hired 3 days later as the interim chief. He was given the permanent position in December of that year.

Also at Thursday's hearing, Sgt. Paul Van Meel testified that Ast was his supervisor on the Covarrubias investigation and disagreed with Ast's testimony he was just a "sounding board" for Sgt. Van Meel as he investigated the Covarrubias case back in January 2012.

Most arbitration hearings are held behind closed doors. The Ast hearing is public at his request.It was expected to be finished by the end of this week but is now expected to be resumed at a later date.

Hearing officer Catherine Harris will review the case after the arbitration hearing is finished and make a recommendation to Santa Maria City Manager Rick Haydon. Haydon will then decide whether to reinstate Ast.

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