Citizen Staff Writer
A tangled web
South Tucson officials said they were “shocked and surprised” when FBI agents served a search warrant in May seeking information about the city’s second-highest-ranking police officer.
But interviews with four former South Tucson police sergeants and a 2003 consultant’s review of the police department show former Lt. Richard Garcia was a controversial figure in the department for years.
The sergeants and others said the FBI probe and accusations by the city that Garcia embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars show a dysfunctional police department that lacks proper oversight. Employee statements in the consultant’s report back up that conclusion.
In May, agents from the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service seized numerous financial and other records related to Garcia. That prompted a city investigation, the results of which claim Garcia stole about $260,000 from the sale of city-impounded vehicles and that he took at least $13,000 in cash from the police department’s evidence room. None of the money has been recovered, city officials said.
Garcia, 47, was fired June 12 for “misappropriation of government funds.” He has not been charged with a crime, and the FBI said it could not comment on an open investigation.
Garcia was hired in 1995 as a South Tucson police officer. He later was promoted to sergeant, then lieutenant .
He has declined interview requests and did not respond to a written request for an interview mailed to his home.
According to people interviewed for this article and city records, Garcia’s history with the department includes:
• A 2002 arrest for extreme DUI while driving a city vehicle. He urinated next to a Tucson police car during his arrest.
• Allegations of drinking and gambling problems.
• Driving a city vehicle for almost a year on a suspended license.
• Near complete control of the department under both former Chief Sixto Molina and current Chief Sharon Hayes-Martinez that created resentment and dissension in the department.
The 2003 report by Shirley Kanode of Tempe-based Sereno Group, a human resources consulting firm, was highly critical of the administration of the police department, saying too much authority was given to Garcia, though it never specifically named him, and that personnel issues connected to him were a source of discord and low morale in the department.
It recommended numerous changes to the department’s administration including updating decades-old policies and procedures, more consistent application of discipline, eradication of favoritism, reorganizing the department’s structure and chain of command, adopting an ethics policy and conducting ethics training.
The report said one of the causes of low morale was the belief among department employees that Garcia was protected by Molina and other city officials.
City Manager Enrique Serna, who was hired in June 2007, said he knew of the report but had not read it and has no plans to.
“I knew there were problems when I came in, but I know what’s going on now with the police department so I don’t need to read the report,” Serna said.
Molina said he read the report at the time, but had to file a public records request with then-City Manager Fernando Castro to get a copy. He said the city prevented him from implementing any of its suggested reforms because it wouldn’t give him the necessary increases to his budget to pay for them.
Hayes-Martinez said she didn’t know the report existed until asked about it by a Tucson Citizen reporter. Serna gave her a copy in August at the same time he gave a copy to the Citizen. Molina said he showed Hayes-Martinez a copy of the report in 2003.
During an interview in June, Finance Director Ruben Villa said the department hadn’t investigated Garcia in the past and he “never imagined (the alleged thefts) could be going on.”
In July, Serna said Villa’s findings were a shock to him and other officials in the department. But in August, Serna said he knew there were “significant fundamental issues” with the police department and Garcia when he was hired.
Former police sergeants Victor Marmion, Marty Harkins, Armando Teyechea, and Wesley Genzer said administrators should not have been surprised.
They agreed to talk to the Tucson Citizen after reading about the findings of the city’s investigation of Garcia in the Citizen on July 28. All four worked closely with Garcia during the past decade.
“Most people in the department knew there was something going on with Garcia,” Genzer said. “Those in high-ranking positions were well aware that Garcia was in control of too much and getting away with too much.”
Genzer worked for STPD as a police officer from 1996 to 2000, and as a sergeant from 2000 to 2006. He now works for the Oro Valley Police Department.
Several employees said in the Sereno Group report that “the people in charge of the department were protecting the interest of certain employees.”
Those “certain employees” included Garcia, Marmion said.
Harkins and Genzer said working for South Tucson was not like working for a normal police department where protocol is followed and discipline applied equally.
The sergeants say Garcia did some of their performance evaluations even though at the time he also was a sergeant, something they say is not supposed to happen in a paramilitary organization. The Citizen’s review of the evaluations shows Garcia signed several of them when he was a sergeant. Others were signed by Hayes-Martinez when she was a lieutenant.
Garcia, even as a sergeant, had complete control of the evidence room, communications and overtime payroll, and was the only person with access to impounded car logs, the former sergeants said.
“Until the day Garcia left, he was untouchable,” Marmion said.
As an example, the former sergeants – and officers and police department support staff interviewed in the Sereno report – mentioned Garcia’s DUI arrest.
Garcia was arrested in November 2002 on suspicion of extreme DUI while driving a city vehicle off duty on his way home from a strip club, records show. After his arrest, his mother drove his city vehicle home.
He was not disciplined by Molina after the arrest.
As part of a plea bargain, Garcia pleaded guilty to a lesser DUI charge, spent one day in jail, paid a fine and had his license suspended, according to court records.
“He showed up to work after getting arrested for DUI and drove a city vehicle on a suspended license, yet nothing was done about it, because it was Garcia,” Harkins said.
Harkins was hired as a South Tucson police officer in 1988. He became a sergeant in 2002 and resigned in July.
In September 2003, Garcia got into a traffic accident in a city vehicle during a police pursuit. South Tucson officials learned his license was suspended when accident investigators requested his license. Molina said he didn’t know Garcia’s license had been suspended.
When Castro found out Garcia’s license was suspended he fired him, but the city’s merit commission reinstated Garcia at Molina’s request. Transcripts from the merit commission hearing show Garcia drove a city vehicle on a suspended license for more than nine months.
According to the hearing transcripts, Castro said the city’s liability insurance carrier had dropped Garcia’s coverage because the city was allowing him to drive city vehicles on a suspended license.
Molina said in the transcript that despite the issues with Garcia, he was a great leader and should continue to be a sergeant.
Once reinstated, Garcia was allowed to keep his numerous responsibilities in the police department.
Molina said he was obliged to protect Garcia’s rights from being violated.
But Garcia’s continued authority in the department was one of the main reasons the four former sergeants wrote a letter to Mayor Jennifer Eckstrom and the City Council in 2005 saying the department’s officers, including them, had taken a vote of no confidence in Molina.
Hayes-Martinez, who was a lieutenant at the time and second in command of the department, also signed the letter.
The letter was never given to the council.
“Villa told us that night we should hold off and not present the letter to City Council during the meeting,” Marmion said. “Sharon backed out at the last minute after that.”
Hayes-Martinez said her reason for not going through with the letter was because her father had become ill at the time.
Villa said he recommended the sergeants hold off because he didn’t want to distract the council from “budget issues” that needed to be addressed that night.
“None of the sergeants told me what the letter was about, and I never found out because they didn’t go forward with it,” Villa said.
The letter said the four sergeants and Hayes-Martinez had met with Castro to express their mutual concerns.
“The department has reached a point when we no longer worry about the criminals on the street, but instead worry about the unprofessional conduct on the part of the police administration and how we are being treated,” the letter said.
The letter said the department was being run by Garcia and not the chief.
Molina said he had to delegate more responsibilities to Garcia because Hayes-Martinez was absent from the department too often to carry on with her responsibilities.
“I still had a police department to run and the jobs needed to be done. That’s why I had Garcia helping me with so much,” Molina said.
Molina resigned as chief in 2007 after a dispute with city officials over the department’s budget. He had been chief since 1997.
Before he left, Molina appointed Hayes-Martinez acting chief, starting the day he left.
Molina said he had to promote Hayes-Martinez because City Hall would not have allowed it any other way. He did not elaborate.
Hayes-Martinez was hired in October 1989 as a patrol officer. She became a sergeant in 1992 and lieutenant in 1997.
The four former sergeants and current police dispatcher Brenda Flores say that in a 2006 meeting with Hayes-Martinez she told them she knew money was missing from the evidence room and that Garcia had a drinking and gambling problem.
“I never said that. There is no written proof of what was said in that meeting,” Hayes-Martinez said.
She said she remembers the five employees at the meeting saying that money was missing. Hayes-Martinez said she did not seek criminal or internal affairs investigations because no proof of the allegations was offered.
Shortly after becoming chief she promoted Garcia to lieutenant and he was given almost complete control of the day-to-day operation of the department, the sergeants said.
Teyechea resigned May 2 after working for STPD for almost 12 years. He said up until the day he left, “all those problems were still going on, because Garcia was running the show under the new chief.”
Teyechea said Garcia was often gone for hours at a time.
When the Citizen asked Hayes-Martinez if she questioned where Garcia went, she said there was no need to question his whereabouts because Garcia always gave her good reasons.
“If he didn’t give me legitimate work reasons he gave me family reasons for why he was gone,” Hayes-Martinez said.
Stephanie Fiems, a stripper at a local strip club, said that between January and April, Garcia was a regular at the club, spending hundreds of dollars at a time. She estimated that he spent at least $20,000 on her. (See related story, Page 8A)
It is unclear if the money given to Fiems was city money, but Garcia’s pay with STPD was about $50,000 per year.
Serna said that when he was was told of the estimated amount given to the stripper, he said his concern was that Garcia may have stolen the money, not how he spent it.
“Our police department is now going to suffer because it doesn’t have that money,” Serna said.
Neither Serna nor Hayes-Martinez has asked another county or state law enforcement agency to investigate the city’s allegations of theft and embezzlement.
“The city and myself have been investigating any misappropriated money connected to Richard Garcia’s investigation since the FBI showed up,” Serna said.
Referring to the money missing from the evidence room, Serna said he asked the Pima County Sheriff’s Department to assist with an audit.
Serna said he’s trying to take steps to improve the police department.
Last month he hired former STPD officers Richard Vidaurri and Wesley Hand. Vidaurri is the assistant chief and Hand is commander. Vidaurri retired as chief of the Marana Police Department in April after a no-confidence vote by the department’s rank and file in March.
One of the things Serna wants them to do is revise the department’s 25-year-old policies and procedures.
“They’re going to not only revise, but rewrite the policies and procedures because nothing has been done before,” Serna said.
Hayes-Martinez will remain chief, he said.
Serna said Hayes-Martinez did not walk into a high- performing organization when she stepped in as chief.
“It’s obvious the administration has been lacking leadership and it was lacking before Chief Hayes,” he said.
“I’m responsible for what has happened since I came in, and I assure you I’m not ready to dismiss Chief Hayes simply because people don’t like her leadership.”
Hayes-Martinez has not had a performance evaluation since 1995, city records show.
“I am not ready to give an evaluation to the chief at this moment. A lot has happened in the past year, especially in the past five months,” Serna said.
Because of the Citizen’s inquiries about the police department, Serna requested a special City Council meeting Sept. 17, so the council could discuss with its attorney the Citizen’s questions.
After meeting in private, Serna told council members not to speak to a Citizen reporter.
“I’m their city manager, I’m here to protect them,” he said.
Mayor Eckstrom said during the public portion of the meeting that questions raised about the leadership in the department were the city manager’s job to assess.
“As mayor and council we were not, and are not now, in a position to know and address the daily challenges faced in the department. That’s the police chief’s job,” Eckstrom said from the dais.
Stripper: Garcia tipped with $100 bills
Stripper Stephanie Fiems says that between January and April, South Tucson Police Lt. Richard Garcia was frequently at her strip club tucking $100 bills into her g-string.
She said Garcia visited her at the club almost every day and spent about five hours there each time.
Fiems agreed to speak to the Citizen only if her stage name and the club she worked at weren’t revealed.
She said she was contacted by an FBI agent in June who asked her questions about Garcia.
“Richard stood out from the beginning because he handed me $100 bills when he was sitting at the bar and I walked by,” she said. “So I kept track of what he gave me, but the (FBI) officer who contacted me took all my records, so I don’t have the exact breakdown with me.”
Garcia gave Fiems an estimated $20,000 in cash, gifts and travel, she said.
“He started giving me about $500 cash every time he came in the club, then it was gifts, shopping sprees and a trip to Vegas for me and my son,” she said.
She said she didn’t know how much he spent on other strippers, whom he also took on trips.
She said she asked Garcia once where the cash came from and he said, “Things in the budget at the police department are funny. Things just aren’t right.”
Fiems said she figured Garcia made his money gambling.
“He told me about his trips to Vegas and how he spent so much there he could get rooms (compensated) and he could get one room for me and my son.
“He would take some of the girls from the club to the (local) casino and he would put money in the machines for us. One time he put $400 in a machine and said, ‘Whatever you make is yours.’”
Fiems said Garcia would be at the strip club during the afternoons and “get pretty drunk.”
Fiems said that when Garcia had to leave to pick up his stepdaughter, “he would drive drunk like that, then come back and drink some more in the evening.”
Garcia was arrested for drunk driving in 2002 while on his way home from a strip club, records show.
Fiems said she did not remember the name of the FBI agent who contacted her.
For a link to our July 28 story on STPD Lt. Richard Garcia, click on this story at www.tucsoncitizen.com.
Former South Tucson cops say police department was out of control
South Tucson at a glance
South Tucson is a mile-square city just south of downtown Tucson and is surrounded by the city of Tucson.
Its boundaries are 25th Street on the north, the Union Pacific Railroad tracks on the east, 40th Street and Benson Highway on the South, and 12th Avenue on the west.
Its population is about 5,500, of which more than 80 percent are Mexican-American and 10 percent Native American.
The city’s budget is more than $17 million.
The police department has 27 positions allocated in its $4 million annual budget.