A Fort Worth police officer who was allegedly protected by a supervisor during an investigation into a traffic ticket scandal has been fired.
Officer Tahwana Zavala admitted to internal affairs investigators Oct. 7 that she occasionally falsified times on traffic tickets that she issued while working overtime in 2009 and 2010 under a federal Selective Traffic Enforcement Program grant, according to a disciplinary letter filed with the Civil Service Commission on Wednesday.
Zavala “minimized her wrongdoing,” the letter said, by telling investigators that it wasn’t about the money but was about her desire to leave early so she could care for another person.
The identity of that person was redacted from documents released by the city. The information was withheld, the city explained in a letter, because the employee chose to make family member information confidential.
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Zavala’s indefinite suspension took effect Tuesday.
Zavala, who had been with the department since 1998, will appeal, said Matt McConahay, her attorney with the Texas Municipal Police Association.
Zavala’s firing comes one month after the Tarrant County district attorney’s office dismissed criminal charges against eight other former Fort Worth traffic officers.
McConahay accused Police Chief Jeff Halstead of using Zavala as a “scapegoat to save face after the DA’s dismissal of criminal charges against other officers.”
“As an officer, she was merely the pawn that was deemed disposable by the chief in his game of chess,” McConahay said. “In firing officer Zavala, the chief has unwittingly placed himself in the ultimate checkmate that is the public’s exposure to the good-ol’-boy system of closed-door corruption of the Fort Worth PD.”
Halstead said the idea that Zavala was a scapegoat is “completely ludicrous.”
“She confessed to everything she lied about and apologized for how she disrespected the badge, the uniform and the organization,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday night.
“She felt horrible about holding onto her lies for over three years, damaging the reputation of her Police Department and hurting a lot of officers.”
A grand jury returned indictments against the eight other officers in June 2011, charging each with multiple counts of tampering with a government record and a single count each of theft by a public servant.
On Jan. 10, prosecutors announced that all charges were dismissed after new information had “been revealed that affected the viability of the prosecution.”
“These issues were unforeseen upon presentation to the grand jury of the case and include unavailability of witnesses, lack of memory by certain witnesses of the events underlying this offense, and new evidence,” prosecutor David Lobingier said in a news release.
On Wednesday, Lobingier said Zavala will not be charged criminally.
“The case was presented to us late last year, and prosecution was declined due to any potential charges being barred by the applicable statute of limitations,” he said.
Lessons from a relative
Zavala falsified the times when she issued tickets on 86 known citations, the disciplinary letter states.
“Officer Zavala said that a relative taught her how to falsify the times on the citations without being detected,” the letter says. “Officer Zavala admitted that she falsified the times on numerous citations to make it appear as if she issued them through the entire STEP Grant shift.”
Zavala told investigators that while issuing a ticket early in her overtime shift, she would occasionally retract her pen point, leaving an impression on the violator’s copy without using ink.
“This action caused the violator’s copy to record the correct time of the traffic stop using the carbon,” the letter states. “Officer Zavala admitted she later went back and recorded an incorrect time on the court copy which was then turned in.”
Zavala told investigators that she would note different times on other citation copies, as well as on her STEP grant overtime worksheet, so it appeared that she had worked the entire shift.
“Officer Zavala admitted that on those occasions, she left her shift early and collected overtime compensation when she was not physically present,” the letter states.
Zavala told investigators that she also coded the falsified citations by writing “DNR” on the back of the court copy “so she would remember not to testify for the citations she falsified,” the letter says.
Internal affairs investigators reviewed Zavala’s citations twice but found no evidence of wrongdoing, Halstead said.
Not until Sept. 6, while prosecutors were investigating the other cases, was the department “made aware of the specific method she used to falsify those citations.”
Investigators reviewed her citations a third time and found discrepancies.
“Her methodology of committing these acts on duty was much different than all the other STEP officers,” Halstead said. “She wasn’t really in a group with those officers. She did hers on her own because she was taught by someone else. She would not say who.”
Attorneys for Herman Young, one of the indicted police officers, previously filed a motion asking a judge to dismiss the case against him, saying that Zavala, despite admitting that she was a chronic abuser of the overtime grant, had been protected by police Sgt. Dave Stamp.
Young’s motion said Stamp and others, perhaps at Stamp’s behest, steered investigators away from Zavala and toward a “core group” of other officers.
In an attachment to the motion, defense attorneys included a memo by officer N.T. Maudsley to internal affairs investigators in which he accused Stamp of retaliation and creating a hostile work environment.
In the memo, dated Dec. 20, 2010, Maudsley wrote that Zavala, a fellow officer and close friend, had told him about her involvement in the traffic ticket scandal and was worried that she would be fired.
“I asked her why she had done this,” Maudsley wrote. “She replied that it was just so easy to do and it was very hard to be divorced, raising kids and working. She also stated that she needed all the money she could get.”
Maudsley wrote that Zavala later admitted that she had lied in her initial interview with internal affairs investigators and that Stamp had covered for her. He said he believed that Stamp was behind Maudsley’s transfer from the traffic division to patrol.
“To me, [this] is retaliation by Sgt. Stamp which has created a hostile work environment for me because of his dislike of me and what I may know,” wrote Maudsley, who has since retired.
Stamp, who has also retired, previously declined to comment and did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday.
Halstead said internal affairs investigators looked into Maudsley’s assertion but found no evidence that Stamp protected Zavala.
“Any police officer who violates the public’s trust, commits criminal conduct on or off duty, or violates the ethics of the profession can never be protected,” Halstead said.
‘Waste of tax dollars’
McConahay said Zavala was a victim herself.
“Officer Zavala is a single mother who was preyed upon by tenured supervisors who themselves are ultimately culpable for establishing and condoning the allegations essential to this entire STEP quota program,” he said.
“These are the same supervisors who are allowed to walk away without any repercussions.”
McConahay said Halstead will be held accountable for an “egregious and shameful waste of tax dollars.”
“The public will be appalled at the type and quality of investigation conducted by their Police Department,” McConahay said. “The department should be held accountable to their victims, whose crimes were not investigated because of the hundreds of hours that were wasted by investigators covering up for one another.”