PANO calls case a political witch hunt
Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
By WALT PHILBIN
A 30-year police veteran and commander of the NOPD Traffic Division is the subject of an internal administrative investigation into what Superintendent Warren Riley said Tuesday are allegations of payroll fraud and neglect of duty.
But a police association spokesman called the inquiry a witch hunt fueled by the officer's "longtime personal friendship" with the family of Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Mayor Ray Nagin's opponent in the May 20 runoff election.
Harry Mendoza, 52, and his administrative assistant, Sgt. Joseph Valiente, have been reassigned pending the outcome of the investigation, according to a press release authorized by Riley and Bambi Hall, director of public relations and information for the NOPD.
Hall said the administrative investigation is in its early stages.
Police officials didn't elaborate, but Lt. David Benelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said the investigation stems from "some members of the New Orleans Police Department's belief that should Landrieu become the next mayor, that Captain Mendoza could assume a dominant role in NOPD administration."
Hall said the investigation "has absolutely nothing to do" with any perception or rumors of Mendoza's association or activities with Landrieu.
"This is an administrative investigation into what he did or didn't do regarding his position as a police officer, and nothing else," she said. She denied that Mendoza was accused of or being investigated for improper involvement in Landrieu's campaign.
At a news conference on an unrelated matter Tuesday afternoon, Riley wouldn't elaborate on the subject of the investigation, but Benelli and Frank DeSalvo, an attorney for Mendoza, said it includes allegations that Mendoza and Valiente played tennis on two occasions instead of working — a charge that both the attorney and the PANO president said was based on ignorance of Valiente's payroll sheet and of regulations covering captains' responsibilities.
"In Valiente's case, if the Public Integrity Bureau had checked payroll records, on both occasions he was playing tennis, he wasn't supposed to be working," Benelli said.
And Mendoza is a captain whose work hours are not specified. He works "off and on all day," Benelli said, and is not eligible for overtime.
Benelli contended that if PIB's surveillance — which he was told was sparked by an anonymous call about two weeks ago -- had been thorough, investigators would have learned that Mendoza, like all other captains, works unscheduled hours.
Benelli said he is convinced the investigation began because PIB was trying to make a case alleging Mendoza was improperly involved in Landrieu's campaign. Police are barred from involvement in politics. "When they couldn't show that, they settled on other stuff," Benelli said.
Mendoza, along with Capts. Tim Bayard and Jeff Winn, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina set up a command post at Harrah's New Orleans Casino and launched search and rescue missions down Chartres Street into the Lower 9th Ward and other neighborhoods, Benelli said.
After years of heading SWAT as commander of the Special Operations Division, Mendoza was transferred to command of the Traffic Division shortly before Katrina hit.
"Not one of his officers deserted or was charged with neglect of duty," DeSalvo said, "which is a tribute to his leadership and the fact he was out there with them."
Landrieu has indicated during his campaign that has not decided whether he would reappoint Riley if he is elected mayor.
La. cop investigated in neglect of duty;