Jesus Flores has a history of playing cop.
Not long after turning 19, he got into trouble for bringing a black-market walkie-talkie to his old high school. A few years later, he was busted for reckless driving, which resulted in a conviction and an official court order to stop impersonating the police.
When Flores got his license to run Management Security Service Inc. in Compton, California, in 2001, he refined his law enforcement look. Wearing a police-like uniform, a badge and a gun, he began delivering eviction notices for property managers at low-income apartment complexes, according to court records.
The practice finally drew the attention of regulators in 2008, when Flores showed up at the apartment of a Spanish-speaking resident to deliver an eviction notice in English. The bewildered resident became so nervous, she called some relatives, who soon arrived with the police.
After he was convicted of impersonating a police officer, a judge wrote that allowing Flores to keep his private security company “would place the public directly at risk.”
California’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services revoked Flores’ license to operate the security company and his license to work as a guard.
But Flores didn’t shut down his company. Instead, a month after the revocation, the bureau issued Management Security a new license, in his wife’s name.
Management Security is among dozens of California security companies that continued operating after regulators discovered abuses of power or evidence of mismanagement or fraud, according to a Reveal analysis of disciplinary orders issued since 2000.
The company owners and their guards exhibited a range of bad behavior, from negligent hiring and training to civil rights violations and excessive force. In many cases, the guards themselves were the victims when their employers failed to pay them.
Since 2012, the analysis found, it has taken the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services an average of four years to revoke the licenses of security companies that ran afoul of the law. Among the companies with revoked licenses, Reveal found evidence that at least half continued to operate, including at least two under new licenses.
“It’s amazing. These guys will either just change their name or they’ll keep operating,” said Greg Jurek, the owner of South District Patrol, a security company in Santa Ana, who himself filed five complaints about a single unlicensed company over a period of four years.
One of his complaints included a 32-page report with 37 exhibits, including a list of contract locations, copies of company contracts, photographs and business filings that he’d collected. Four years after receiving his complaint, emails show a bureau representative told Jurek the company owner had promised to quit. But Jurek said he continued to see the company operating.
Reveal’s analysis comes as lawmakers prepare to question the bureau about its oversight and enforcement practices at a hearing today in Sacramento. A recently released report by the Joint Oversight committees confirmed many of the findings of Hired Guns, a Reveal/CNN investigation that uncovered lax oversight and regulation of the armed security guard industry.
In Flores’ case, it took the bureau five years after his conviction to revoke his security company license. One month later, the bureau issued Management Security a new license. Last May, a local CBS affiliate in Los Angeles caught the company issuing fake city parking tickets and pocketing the fines. Yet the company’s license remains active, with guards working throughout the Los Angeles area.
“It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out. Let’s not give a license – a month after it is revoked – to the guy’s wife,” said Julie D’Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law in San Diego. “If the bureau is being taken like that, that’s ridiculous.”
When a Reveal reporter called and asked to speak with the owner of Management Security, she was transferred to Flores, who denied he was still operating a security company. Then he hung up the phone.
“We have an alarm company. No security guards, no,” he said, before ending the call. Within moments, Flores’ name, once listed as chief executive officer, disappeared from Management Security’s website.
Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, said a prior disciplinary history does not prevent a business associate or relative, such as Flores’ wife, from obtaining a new security company license. Applicants for a security company can get a license “as long as they’re qualified to run the company.”
Also, unless the bureau receives a complaint, he said, enforcement staff does not usually check that a revoked company has shut down for good.
“There may be instances where we do that. We’re not prohibited from doing that. But once we close them with a revocation, I think the resources go to the cases that are actively open,” he said. “Once the license is revoked, we have no authority over them except to issue them a fine.”
The delays are part of a larger problem in the regulation of the burgeoning armed security industry. Security guards patrol our neighborhoods, schools and shopping malls, but a lack of oversight has allowed anyone, from a failed police officer to a felon, to pursue a career in security, putting the public at risk.
In California, documents show that regulators rarely take the step of revoking a security company license. But even after the bureau found wrongdoing and took action, many companies continued to operate, sometimes with the permission of the bureau itself.
In 2000, John Lloyd Stirn, the owner of Southwest Patrol in Diamond Bar, was convicted of impersonating a police officer. Bureau records show he hired unlicensed guards and guards with criminal records, including a convicted felon and sex offender whose license application had been rejected after a criminal background check. That guard later was convicted of impersonating a police officer in 1999 after he handcuffed a resident at an apartment complex and stole his property. Four years later, the bureau attempted to revoke Stirn’s license but ultimately agreed to put it on probation after Stirn hired a lawyer. Stirn, whose license remains active, did not respond to interview requests.
Between Aaron Johnson and his wife, the bureau has issued and revoked three security company licenses. A fourth license, in his wife’s name, remains clear of discipline and active. The company, now known as Johnson & Associates Inc. in San Diego, pocketed more than $52,000 from several public high schools after being hired to provide security and collect money from ticket sales at sporting events. Reached by phone, Johnson told a Reveal reporter that he thought only two of the company’s licenses were revoked, then he ended the call.
While the number of security guards has grown 11 percent since 2010, bringing with them more consumer complaints, the bureau itself has shrunk by nearly 10 percent, according to data supplied in annual reports. Five employees were reassigned to work full time on BreEZe, a computer system intended for use by 19 of the Department of Consumer Affairs’ 40 regulatory boards and bureaus, but beset by ballooning costs, performance problems and mismanagement.
Former bureau employees said they often ran into challenges investigating bad security companies, including laws limiting their ability to obtain relevant information from company owners.
Because the law only requires companies to retain records for two years, for example, investigators found many company owners discarded records that could be used to investigate complaints. Without access to financial records, investigators encouraged complainants who were owed money to file suit.
“If it’s not in the law, there’s nothing the bureau can do,” said Joan Green, a former enforcement representative who retired in 2013.
“It just limits and binds the bureau to what information they can obtain,” she said. “We couldn’t get bank records, we couldn’t do anything. We didn’t have the power to do it. It was frustrating because you couldn’t help the consumer.”
The bureau could ask for help, but records show that the agency rarely does.
Internal data show that the bureau rarely sends complaints to the Division of Investigation, a unit within the Department of Consumer Affairs that employs sworn law enforcement investigators who perform investigations for various regulatory boards. Records show that the bureau sent only nine cases to the division in 2014, up from two in 2013.
Instead, the bureau relies on an enforcement staff of 10 that has little power to enforce laws and no prior investigative or law enforcement experience. Investigations can take months or years to complete, as the bureau’s understaffed investigators attempt to contact company owners for interviews or records.
For Jose and Irene Lopez, the owners of Veteran Security in Apple Valley, that had devastating consequences. The two nearly lost their company in 2008 when former employee Carl Souza took over their business and started running it as his own.
According to court records, Souza hired unlicensed guards and didn’t pay them, and signed numerous contracts, including with the Hesperia Unified School District. When Jose Lopez realized Souza had begun pocketing the funds, he filed a complaint with the bureau.
At first, records show the bureau told Souza to stop operating a security company. Then, in 2009, regulators issued him his own license. In 2010, a civil jury ordered Souza to pay Jose Lopez $458,000 in damages. Finally, on Dec. 4, 2013, an administrative law judge ordered that Souza’s license be revoked.
“We almost lost our home,” Jose Lopez said. “We lost everything. My personal savings. I had to use up all my money to pay off these guards. I didn’t have no uniforms, no accounts. I had nothing. He took everything.”
Still, Lopez said he understood why it took the bureau so long to act.
“When you get a complaint, who do you believe? I say this and he says no. So they don’t know,” he said. “Finally, we went to court and I proved I was the owner. And that’s when they came after him.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.