Roughly a year from the time that a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed by two local women against the city, the police chief and several officers alleging false arrest and abuse of power, Pasadena officials decided to settle the controversial case out of court for $300,000.
“When you get a six-figure settlement for an arrest that resulted in no injuries, six-figures sends the right message,” said attorney Bill Paparian, one of two Pasadena lawyers representing Michelle Rodgers and Selah Chavét in the suit against the department and its officers, among them Rodgers’ brother, veteran Sgt. Michael Bugh.
As first reported in the Pasadena Weekly, the 52-year-old Bugh, who is now on medical leave but at the time headed the Police Department’s financial crimes unit, had Rodgers, his sister, arrested on Feb. 27, 2016, at the home of their widowed mother, where Rodgers, 54, had taken up residence.
At that time, Bugh instructed another officer to arrest Rodgers after their elderly, mentally impaired mother, retired teacher Verta Bugh, wrote Rodgers a $1,000 check to buy food and household supplies. Although he was off duty that day, Bugh traveled to his mother’s home from his home in Glendora and instructed another officer to have his sister arrested for suspicion of elder abuse after it was learned she had cashed the check. All of the cash was recovered.
Bugh had his sister arrested a second time in a similar fashion two weeks later. That’s when she and Chavét, a longtime Bugh family friend, tried to visit with 85-year-old Verta Bugh, who suffers from dementia, at her home. Chavét was ultimately arrested and handcuffed that night, as was Rodgers.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office later declined to prosecute Rogers on the elder abuse complaint in the first instance, and the City Prosecutor’s Office refused to prosecute Rodgers and Chavét for misdemeanor trespassing in the second case. Although Bugh had attempted to obtain temporary restraining orders against his sister, each of those applications was denied.
Officers involved in both arrests were also named in the federal lawsuit, filed May 24, 2016 in US District Court by Paparian and well-known civil rights attorney John Burton of Pasadena. The lawsuit claims the two arrests violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and represented “a gross abuse of governmental authority and power” that “shock the conscience”.
Bugh could not be reached for comment.
One critic of a previous story wrote online that the paper was one-sided in its depiction of the situation involving Bugh and Rodgers. Others said in emails and over the phone that this was a private family affair which the newspaper had no business covering. Two people said they had personal knowledge of the family situation and praised Bugh for being a good son.
Rodgers said she is happy with the settlement.
“I’m OK. I’m happy. It’s done and over with,” she said.
Their mother was placed in a retirement home in early November, said Rodgers, who continued living in the house until it was sold in April. Since the sale, she has been sharing a home with Chavét. The family home, which lists on zillow.com for $884,000, fetched $879,000, all of which has been placed in a trust account controlled by her brother. She is currently seeking her brother’s financial records in efforts to have her name placed on the account.
“The other part is over and done with, but I’m not going to let him off the hook on those financial records,” she said.
In a claim for damages previously filed against the city, and in previous interviews with the Pasadena Weekly, Rodgers said her Feb. 27 arrest “was a pre-emptive strike by my brother” relating to the ongoing dispute between the siblings regarding control of their mother’s assets. The Bugh family had lived in the 93-year-old, three-bedroom home in East Pasadena for nearly 60 years.
In the claim, Rodgers wrote the first arrest was “an abuse [of Bugh’s] position as a police officer for personal gain.” Chavét also filed a claim shortly after her arrest on March 12.
What police officers probably did not know — but Bugh did — was in December 2014 Verta Bugh amended her 1990 trust to state that Rodgers could live in the home rent-free, that she could still live there 12 months after Verta’s death, and that in the event of Verta’s death both siblings would be co-trustees of the estate.
At the time of the first arrest, Officer Alonso Gonzalez wrote in his report that Bugh showed him documents from 2005 indicating that he had power of attorney over his mother’s affairs. Paparian said Bugh was using an old power of attorney order to represent that he had the sole authority to act on his mother’s behalf. Paparian showed a letter from an insurance company in Michigan which denied the mother life insurance because Bugh’s power of attorney had expired.
“This arrest,” Chavét wrote in her March 24 complaint against Michael Bugh and the department over the second incident, “is an abuse of Sgt. Michael Bugh’s position and power within the Pasadena Police Department for his own personal gain. Michael Bugh’s actions show an out of control police officer who seems unable to differentiate who he is as a police sergeant from his own person. This arrest also shows a Pasadena Police Department knowing and willing to make false arrests for the sake of a fellow officer’s personal gain.”
“Police officers can’t do things like this,” Paparian said. “This cult of police, which has infected this department, with police doing anything they want, has got to stop.”
Although he is currently off from work, Bugh is the subject of a departmental internal affairs investigation in relation to the arrests, said Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez.
Pasadena City Attorney Michelle Beal Bagneris said the settlement does not include admissions of fault on anyone’s part. “After weighing all the factors, costs included,” Bagneris said of the decision to settle out of court, “that was something that was deemed appropriate in this case.” Although her office represented the city, the department and most of the officers involved, it did not represent Bugh, because “it was not clear what the course and scope of his duties were” in this case, Bagneris said.
“What happened here was really outrageous,” Paparian, a former mayor of Pasadena, said in a prepared statement issued on May 17. On May 15, The City Council met in closed session and authorized the settlement with Rodgers and Chavét.
“The City Council ultimately did the right thing by settling this civil rights claim after mediation,” Paparian wrote. “These women are innocent victims of a department that has continually rewarded problem police officers instead of disciplining them. … The actions of the officers are part of a larger malady within the city and PPD wherein Chief Sanchez and his predecessor have allowed officers to treat the PPD as a personal fiefdom,” Paparian wrote, referring to former Chief Bernard Melekian.
Paparian told the Pasadena Weekly that part of the settlement included police adjusting their records to reflect the two incidents as “detentions” and not “arrests.”
“I still get angry when I talk about what happened …. Unbelievable,” Paparian said.
“As [US District] Judge Percy Anderson said to Sheriff Baca last week,” Paparian said, referring to former Sheriff Lee Baca’s three-year federal prison sentence after being found guilty on corruption charges, ‘no one is above the law.’”