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LAPD Chief in the Hot Seat Over Horse Deal

Days before a vote on whether he receives a second five-year term, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is being buffeted by the unlikeliest of controversies--the department's acquisition of a horse belonging to his daughter.

The latest twist came Wednesday with a signed document obtained by The Times that showed Beck had approved the deal after repeatedly insisting he had no role in the transaction.

The imbroglio stems from the LAPD's purchase earlier this year of George, a 10-year-old quarter horse, for its equestrian unit for $6,000 -- a price department officials said was a bargain.

Police commissioners said they approved the deal without knowing the horse was owned by Brandi Pearson, Beck's daughter and an officer with the department.

In the paperwork sent to the commission by Beck, he assured them that "all possible conflicts of interest have been researched and there does not appear to be any issues that would reflect negatively on the Department."

In retrospect, the chief's spokesman said, Beck now acknowledges the department should have given commissioners more information about the horse and its owner.

The horse purchase is the latest of several issues that Beck has confronted in recent months as the civilian police commission decides whether he should be awarded another term in office. Beck has generally earned high marks for his performance, but has come under criticism for what some see as his inconsistent discipline of officers and lack of transparency with his civilian bosses.

In addition to the horse kerfuffle, the police commission said it was investigating whether Beck played any role in softening the disciplinary action against a male sergeant accused of having an inappropriate relationship with the chief's daughter. Beck has denied any involvement in the case.

Despite the recent turmoil, Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday reiterated his support for Beck.

"The chief has done a great job in making this a safer city and in strengthening ties between LAPD and the community," Garcetti said through a spokeswoman.

The five-member commission, appointed by Garcetti, is set to vote on a second term next Tuesday.

In March, the commanding officer who oversees the LAPD's mounted platoon sent a formal memo to Beck making the case for the purchase. He said the animal had been evaluated and was well-qualified to work as a police horse.

The money to buy the horse, the officer explained, would come from a private donor who had visited the platoon and written a check to the Police Foundation, which raises funds used by the department to purchase equipment and services not covered in the official budget. The seller of the horse was identified only as "a department employee assigned to the Mounted Platoon."

In two places at the bottom of the memo, next to the word "approved," Beck signed his name alongside those of other high-ranking officials. Within weeks, foundation officials had cut a check to Pearson, according to internal documents and interviews.

When news of the horse deal surfaced earlier this week, the chief defended the purchase by saying through a spokesman that he had deliberately recused himself from all aspects of the decision to acquire his daughter's horse. Beck reiterated that stance during a news conference Tuesday. The internal deliberations over the horse between members of the mounted platoon and senior command staff had been "steered completely around me," the chief insisted.

On Wednesday, Beck's spokesman referred inquiries on the matter to Assistant Chief Michel Moore.

Moore said he oversaw the evaluation of the horse's qualifications and value and that Beck was not involved. When asked about the chief's signatures on the documents, Moore said Beck told him that he "views his signature as a formality. He did not see his role as, in any way, tipping the scale" regarding the decision to buy the horse.

Commissioners want Beck to account for the apparent discrepancies.

"The documents that have come to light make it important that we hear an explanation from the chief and the people around the chief on how they could say something that seems to be contradicted by the documents," said Steve Soboroff, the commission president. "I look forward to that explanation."

Soboroff stressed that he does not believe there was anything wrong with buying the horse, since the price appears to have been fair and members of the mounted platoon have said it is performing well in the field. He expressed frustration, however, that Beck and other top officials failed to avoid the public backlash by simply disclosing the horse belonged to his daughter at the time of the deal.

And, although the commission must sign off on all donations to the department, other documents obtained by The Times through a public records request make clear that more than three months passed after the sale of the horse before department officials asked the commission for its approval. Moore said he and other officials were looking into the delay.

Before the flap over the horse and the sergeant's discipline case, Beck endured a particularly rough stretch of controversies that seemed to have passed.

In February, he opted not to punish a group of officers involved in a flawed shooting, which drew a public challenge from Soboroff. A few weeks later, members of the oversight board criticized the chief for not firing Shaun Hillmann, an officer who was caught making racist comments and later denied doing so to investigators. The chief's decision to spare Hillmann, whose father was an LAPD officer and uncle was a deputy chief in the department, has become a rallying cry for many officers who believe Beck is unfair in how he metes out discipline.

Those controversies were followed by revelations that officers in South L.A. had been tampering with recording equipment in patrol cars to avoid being monitored. Commissioners demanded to know why Beck had left them in the dark about the matter.

The questions surrounding the horse purchase, which were first raised

by political consultant Jasymne Cannick on her personal website, have reignited doubts among commissioners over whether the chief is committed to working with his civilian bosses and keeping them apprised of potential controversies.

Robert Saltzman, a commissioner who has been particularly critical of Beck, said he was "surprised and troubled" by the memo Beck signed. Saltzman said he would withhold judgment until the commission's inspector general completes an ongoing investigation into the purchase of the horse. In light of the memo, Saltzman said he had "strongly urged the inspector general to report back to us, if possible, before we vote on the chief's reappointment."

Copyright 2014 - Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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