DUI Sting Causes Legal Snarl in Bay Area

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A Bay Area sheriff’s deputy who claims he was fired after revealing his involvement in a DUI sting and cover-up sued his employer for retaliation, in Federal Court.
     Former reserve deputy sheriff William Howard claims the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department ostracized, demoted and fired him for telling superiors that deputy Stephen Tanabe had coordinated a sting with a private investigator to set up a winery owner for a DUI arrest. He claims Tanabe then asked him to hide a package in his, Howard’s, attic that Tanabe did not want investigators to find.
     Winery owner Mitchell Katz claimed in a 2011 lawsuit that private investigator Chris Butler had set up a sting against Katz. Katz claimed that Butler’s employee invited him to a wine bar in Danville on the pretext that he wanted to make a reality TV show about Katz’s winemaking business.
     The real purpose of the meeting was to lure Katz into getting drunk so Tanabe could arrest him for DUI, which charge his estranged wife could use against him in custody proceedings, according to the 2011 lawsuit. Katz agreed to dismiss without prejudice three of the 13 causes of action in his lawsuit.
     In Howard’s new lawsuit, Howard claims Tanabe received multiple calls from his “P.I. friend” during the evening, from which Howard surmised that Tanabe was receiving information about a suspect under the influence of alcohol, who turned out to be Katz.
     Sure enough, Katz claimed in his lawsuit, he was stopped by Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Deputy Stephen Tanabe, and was arrested for driving under the influence.
     Howard claims that about a month later, on Feb. 16, 2011, an agitated Tanabe showed up at Howard’s house, after Butler had been arrested on drugs and weapons charges, and asked Howard to keep a package that Tanabe did not want investigators to find when they searched his house while investigating his involvement with Butler.
     Tanabe allegedly retrieved the item from his car, which was covered by a black plastic garbage bag, and told Howard to keep it in his attic.
     Howard claims in his lawsuit that while the request made him feel “uncomfortable,” he took the item in order to “avoid a confrontation with Deputy Tanabe while he was in this highly disturbed and agitated state.”
     Howard claims he “needed time to process the information Deputy Tanabe provided to plaintiff and to determine what course of action to take” but that he did not look into the bag and did not know what was in it. The package contained an assault rifle, according to a search warrant affidavit.
     Howard claims he informed his superiors on Feb. 23, 2011 about his involvement with the DUI stop and the package that Tanabe left at his house. His supervisors allegedly followed Howard to his house, found the package containing the gun and arrested Tanabe.
     Howard claims he was named in a San Francisco Chronicle news article on March 9, 2011 as the person who reported Tanabe to Contra Costa County regarding the Katz arrest.
     According to his lawsuit, Howard’s peers “criticized plaintiff for trying to ruin the career of a respected and well-liked sheriff deputy. Plaintiff was told he could not talk to anyone about Deputy Tanabe and the arrest of Katz, so plaintiff was not able to explain to his peers the truth about what had actually happened.”
     When Howard received a subpoena to testify at Katz’s hearing about his DUI arrest, he told the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office Volunteer Services Office about his “concerns of having to provide a sworn statement that might adversely affect the criminal investigation surrounding Deputy Tanabe and the arrest of Katz” but was told by Sergeant Roxane Gruenheid that as far as she was concerned, plaintiff was “on [his] own,” according to the complaint.
     Howard claims he received an email a few days later stating that volunteer services would not provide him with legal advice, which left him feeling “isolated” from the sheriff’s office.
     Howard claims he was removed from work for the first time in 18 years, was subjected to hostile treatment by a fellow deputy, and was not scheduled to work for an entire week in May 2011, for the first time.
     On June 22, 2011, Howard claims, he was summoned to a meeting with Assistant District Attorney Sean Fawell, who ignored his request to consult with his attorney beforehand, instead dispatching Lt. Dan Hoffman to pick up Howard in his marked police car. He claims Fawell left him standing outside his office for 50 minutes, before telling him, “if you were a regular, I would have fired your ass.”
     Fawell then told Howard he had been assigned to “Civil,” which Howard understood as a demotion. This understanding was reinforced when Howard was informed a few weeks later that he would not be paid per diem for his services in the Civil Division, as he had been in Marine Patrol, he says in the complaint.
     Howard claims that deputies then harassed him for several months, that he was forced to work alone and that other deputies kept their distance from him when they realized who he was.
     When Howard complained to District Attorney David Livingston about the harassment and retaliation, at an April 12, 2012 meeting, Livingston told him “that he should consider himself ‘lucky’ that he hadn’t been dismissed and suggested writing a letter of apology for being involved in the dirty DUI’s. Defendant Livingston ended the meeting by telling plaintiff that he was ‘too sensitive’ and ‘needed to grow thicker skin,'” according to the complaint.
     Howard was fired on Aug. 14, 2012, at which time he was told “that there would be no hearing regarding plaintiff’s termination, and that the decision to terminate came from the ‘highest level’ and was ‘not reversible,'” according to the complaint.
     Howard seeks damages for whistleblower retaliation, negligent hiring, negligent training and supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
     He is represented by Michael E. Cardoza from the Cardoza Law Offices in Walnut Creek.
     Cardoza told Courthouse News: “One of the big problems with police departments is that code of silence, and when an officer reports something amiss and then gets treated poorly and is ostracized and then fired I think we should take a closer look within our law enforcement authorities. Because we all know, as witnessed in this case with Chris Butler and all the other officers that were arrested, that things aren’t always as they should be within police departments. But when people step forward and point things that are amiss, they could be ostracized, treated poorly and in this case fired. Things like that have to be dealt with, and unfortunately, they need to be dealt with sometimes, like in this case, in the courts.”
     District Attorney Livingston told Courthouse News: “Unfortunately, since this involves a confidential matter dealing with a former volunteer, I cannot comment on details of the matter. Mr. Howard’s claim of being a ‘whistle blower’ is nonsense. This case was well under investigation when he finally came forward to fully explain his involvement. Beyond this, I cannot comment further due to pending litigation.”
     Katz claimed in his lawsuit that he was not the only person set up for a DUI arrest.
     In May 2012 Butler pleaded guilty to seven federal felony charges, including drug offenses, conspiracy, extortion and illegal wiretapping, according to contemporary media reports. Butler admitted working with Tanabe to stage multiple drunken driving arrests on behalf of his clients, most of whom were involved in custody battles or other legal disputes, according to the news reports.
     Tanabe was charged with felony extortion, wire fraud and other criminal charges in Federal Court in 2011. Those charges are pending.

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