Former KHSD police chief sues district, seeks $100 million

FILE -- Former Kern High School District police chief Joe Lopeteguy is seen in a KBAK/KBFX file photo.

Former Kern High School District police chief Joe Lopeteguy has filed a civil lawsuit against the district, and his attorneys say the district illegally used a criminal database thousands of times.

The district says it can't yet comment on the lawsuit but will "vigorously defend itself."

Lopeteguy's lawyers say he's been forced to file the suit to force the district to change. They also say the action was needed to clear up allegations the district made against Lopeteguy after he came forward.

"There's been such severe false negative publicity about Joe Lopeteguy and his actions as the Kern High School District police chief, that it's important for us, as we represent him, to right that by airing the truth so that the public will know what is behind this lawsuit," attorney Seth O'Dell said Monday.

O'Dell said Lopeteguy was acting police chief when he discovered the district was using the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or CLETS, to check on students, staff and teachers. Reportedly it was used, among other things, to check whether student athletes actually lived at the address they listed with the district.

Attorney Brandon Holladay said that system is supposed to be used only by by law enforcement, and for law enforcement purposes. But, he said the district used CLETS when they should not have, and did that "for decades."

"Over 3,500 people had their lives peeked into further than the school district is allowed to," Holladay said.

It can be a misdemeanor or a felony to give information obtained through CLETS to someone unauthorized to receive it.

Lopeteguy refused to make the data searches, and reported to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office that it had been done by the district. His attorneys say after he came out with the allegations, Lopeteguy himself was then accused by the district of misusing CLETS.

The attorneys say no charges were ever filed against him.

"It's very clear that there was no misuse found in these investigations of CLETS by Joe Lopeteguy," O'Dell said.

Lopeteguy had been put on leave by the school district, but then returned to work last August. At that point, the lawsuit says he was subjected to a "hostile work environment." It says he was intimidated, was followed, and conversations were recorded.

The attorneys say the led to severe emotional and physical stress.

"He's had a difficult time, "O'Dell said. "He's recovering from open heart surgery." The lawyer said the stress led to high blood pressure and other problems.

Lopeteguy went on voluntary stress leave in mid-August last year. O'Dell said for all practical purposes, Lopeteguy is no longer the police chief. Lopeteguy hasn't resigned, and he hasn't been fired, but O'Dell said this is a case of “constructive termination."

On Monday, the Kern High School District sent a statement saying they can't respond publicly to the lawsuit, and saying action by Lopeteguy's lawyers "... is an obvious attempt to prejudice the District in the media, the community, and with the potential jury pool."

The statement continues that the district can't ethically argue the case in the media, and they're legally unable to release information on police officer personnel matters.

"This leaves the District unable to publically defend itself in this regard or to provide the public with relevant and important information about this case at this time," it continues. "However, the District looks forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend itself against this lawsuit and to provide the court and jurors with evidence related to this matter and the parties involved."

Lopeteguy's lawyers say their action could result in damages up to $100 million. They say after the suit was filed, the district now has 30 days to respond with an answer or to dispute it.

O'Dell said Lopeteguy was forced to take the legal action.

"He's looking at this to be over quickly, for the Kern High School District to stop their illegal practices, for them to change that culture that he walked into, and to right these wrongs," O'Dell said. "And that they take the necessary steps to regain the trust of the public they serve."

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