Top LA County Sheriff’s official bought stolen Audi – Los Angeles Times
A top-ranking Los Angeles County sheriff’s official bought a stolen luxury sedan last year from the owner of a towing company that contracts with his agency, a Times investigation has found.
Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans paid $3,000 for the 2012 Audi A4, which had been seized by sheriff’s deputies from a suspected gang member at a drunk-driving checkpoint.
The Sheriff’s Department launched an internal investigation last week after The Times questioned Rothans about his vehicle purchase.
Rothans, the department’s third-ranking official, said he had no idea he was driving a stolen car until more than a year after he purchased it from Lisa Vernola, a longtime friend who owns Vernola’s Towing in Norwalk.
Rothans said he knew that department policy prohibited him from buying a car directly from the towing company, but he considered the transaction a private sale between himself and Vernola. Vernola had registered the car in her name after no one claimed it from her impound lot.
Vernola said she did not cut Rothans a special deal and would have sold the car to anyone who made an offer.
A DMV spokesman said Rothans paid $3,000 for the car, which appeared from its registration to be a 2010 model. At the time, the Kelley Blue Book value for a 2010 Audi A4 in good condition was about $15,000.
The car needed a lot of work, including a new radio and repairs to the rear body, Rothans recalled. Vernola said the car needed a new engine and sometimes wouldn’t start. She, too, did not know it was stolen.
“I wanted to get rid of it,” she said in an interview. “It wasn’t worth crap.”
Since 2006, Rothans has overseen the Pico Rivera Sheriff’s Station — first as the station captain, then as a commander and now as assistant sheriff over patrol operations — where Vernola’s Towing has held a contract with the Sheriff’s Department to tow and impound cars.
Because Vernola was a friend, Rothans said, he did not ask about the history of the car and did not know that it was one step removed from the impound lot.
Sheriff’s officials are prohibited from purchasing property that has been seized by the department. The prohibition, described in department regulations, applies both to direct purchases and purchases made through a third party. Employees also are prohibited from personally profiting from their positions.
“I don’t think that buying a car from a private party is unethical,” Rothans said in an interview. “I didn’t think I was manipulating the policy or that a car was changing hands so I could get a special deal. I bought the car from someone I’ve been friends with for 20 years. Looking at the policy, I still don’t think I did anything wrong.”
Steve Rothlein, a law enforcement consultant who has written about police ethics, said Rothans should have used better judgment.
The appearance of receiving a special deal from the towing company should have been enough to stop him, Rothlein said.
“The average law enforcement officer, even more likely a supervisor, would realize that maybe they’re getting a really good deal,” said Rothlein, who retired as the No. 2-ranking official in the Miami-Dade Police Department. “Could this be looked at as, ‘I’m receiving something just because of my position that an average person wouldn’t get?’ In a professional sense, he should have known better. It doesn’t look right — it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Rothans said his ethics have never before been questioned in 32 years with the Sheriff’s Department. He has waived his right to keep the internal investigation private, allowing the department’s independent watchdog, Inspector General Max Huntsman, to monitor it.
“Any investigation into a department executive should be transparent,” Rothans said in an email. Giving Huntsman access will ensure full transparency, he added.
Huntsman said that outside oversight is particularly important for investigations involving high-ranking officials.
“In any organization, it’s always a challenge to monitor and properly assess the behavior of the people whose job it is to do that monitoring and assessing,” he said. Huntsman said the result of the investigation would not be made public.
A department spokesman said Sheriff Jim McDonnell holds employees of all ranks to the same standards. McDonnell “will take appropriate action based on where the facts lead us,” said Cmdr. Keith Swensson.
The Audi was stolen from a dealership in Mission Viejo on the day after Christmas in 2011.
Nearly two years later, sheriff’s deputies stopped the car at a DUI checkpoint in Pico Rivera. The driver, Robert Steven Orozco, was arrested on suspicion of firearms violations, including carrying a loaded firearm in public and possession of a concealed firearm by a gang member, according to a police report reviewed by The Times.
The car, described in the report as a gray four-door 2010 Audi A4, was impounded at Vernola’s Towing. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) listed in the report matches the one registered by Rothans with the Department of Motor Vehicles in May 2014 with a purchase price of $3,000, DMV officials said.
Orozco, who was jailed following his July 28, 2013, arrest, did not claim the car through a representative, and no one bought it when Vernola’s advertised it in a lien sale, according to both Vernola and the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force.
Vernola said she then registered the Audi in her name, thinking it would be fun to have a sporty car in addition to the vehicle she uses to ferry around her three children. But the Audi had more mechanical problems than she expected, she said.
According to Vernola, Rothans spotted the Audi after arriving at the tow yard to have lunch with her father, Norwalk City Councilman Luigi Vernola, who is a prominent supporter of the Sheriff’s Department and founder of the nonprofit Friends of Norwalk Sheriff’s Station. The friendship between Rothans and the Vernola family goes back decades, according to both Rothans and Lisa Vernola.
When Rothans took an interest in the car, Vernola said, she was eager to get it off her hands.
Around Aug. 21, after driving the Audi on his off-duty hours for more than a year, Rothans received a notice from the DMV to take the car in for a VIN verification.
At the California Highway Patrol’s East Los Angeles station, an officer discovered that the VIN on the car’s dashboard belonged to a different car: a 2012 Audi, which was new when it was stolen from the Mission Viejo dealership. Someone had replaced the real VIN with a fake VIN so the car would not appear to be stolen.