Ex-LAPD Watchdog Claims He Was Fired For Watchdogging His Own Boss

Revelations about a controversial 2015 LAPD gathering is at the center of a lawsuit filed this week by a former watchdog for the agency. (Becca Murray/KPCC)

A former watchdog of the Los Angeles Police Department claims he was retaliated against and fired after outing his boss, the then-inspector general, for releasing confidential information to the press, according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court Wednesday.

The L.A. city attorney's office said it is reviewing the complaint and declined to comment.

James Willis worked as an assistant inspector general under the former office head, Alex Bustamante. The lawsuit alleges Willis alerted officials at the police and the L.A. ethics commission when he discovered Bustamante allowed a KABC reporter to photograph "secret logs which were law enforcement sensitive."

The logs were related to an investigation into a controversial 2015 LAPD gathering in downtown L.A., according to Gregory Smith, Willis' attorney. At that gathering, billed as "top secret," local law enforcement and business leaders met with an ex-Mexican Mafia shot caller who was serving life in prison for murder. City and law enforcement officials lambasted the gathering as inappropriate, potentially endangering the public and incurring unnecessary costs.

Willis thought Bustamante overstepped when he shared the logs, which "contained the names of law enforcement officers, possibly judges, prosecutors, federal agents, and task force code names, connected to a senior gang member that had turned informant," according to the lawsuit.

Smith said the information could hamper ongoing law enforcement investigations — or worse.

"By Bustamante turning over this information to the media, lives could be in jeopardy," the lawsuit claims.

Bustamante did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The incident sparked an investigation by the city's ethics commission, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that Bustamante argued that the city attorney told him he could legally share the log. Bustamante also maintained that the information in the log could be found publicly elsewhere, the Times reported.

In a statement to the paper, Bustamante said he showed the log to the reporter "to prevent the airing of a false and misleading story about the Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies."

California is one of the most secretive states in the nation when it comes to law enforcement conduct. As pressure has mounted for law enforcement agencies to be more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, many city and county leaders established inspector general's offices and civilian oversight boards. But these entities' powers to collect and publicize information is often limited.

Bustamante's disclosure of the log and Willis' lawsuit highlight a tension among authorities about which information should be released publicly, especially when it's sensitive or contains private personnel material - or when it involves situations that could embarrass a department.

Willis' lawsuit is believed to be the first against the inspector general's office, which came under a new leader, Mark Smith, in January. Bustamante is now senior vice president and chief compliance and audit officer at the University of California.

Willis claims he sounded alarm bells days after he discovered the KABC reporter had the logs. According to the lawsuit, Willis contacted the officer in charge of constitutional policing, the executive director of the L.A. Police Commission, and Matt Johnson, then-president of the commission.

According to the lawsuit, the first question Johnson asked Willis was if he gave anyone the report he had "prepared for the commission outlining the serious charges against Bustamante."

"Johnson appeared to be more concerned with containing knowledge of Bustamante's wrongful behavior than taking action," the lawsuit claims.

Johnson, who still sits on the police commission, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Willis continued to work for the office after the logs were disclosed and claims in the lawsuit he was subjected to "multiple adverse employment actions," including diminished investigative responsibilities. He was fired in April.

Gregory Smith, Willis' lawyer, said Willis was fired not long after Mark Smith took the helm, because "Bustamante knew [Willis] couldn't be terminated during his tenure."

"It would look like retaliation," Smith said. "So they waited ... in an attempt to make it look like team change."

Willis' lawsuit requests compensation for loss of income as well as physical, mental and emotional injuries and other damages.

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