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California prison warden retired during theft investigation

March 10, 2020 GMT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California prison warden who abruptly retired last fall had been placed on administrative leave while under investigation for alleged theft from a thrift store and attempting to cover it up, a newspaper reported Tuesday.

The investigation of former Mule Creek State Prison warden Joe Lizarraga concluded that his dishonesty, theft and “failure of good behavior” warranted firing, The Sacramento Bee said, citing a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report obtained under the state Public Records Act.

Corrections’ internal affairs office opened the investigation as soon as it became aware of the allegations, department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email to the newspaper.

“The investigation concluded in December 2019, as a result, CDCR sustained that there had been instances of dishonesty and theft that would have been grounds to terminate Lizarraga’s employment,” she wrote.

The investigation report said that on Sept. 14, 2018, Lizarraga removed price tags from winter equipment at Interfaith Food Bank Thrift Store in Sutter Creek and then suggested lower prices to the cashier.

The report said Sutter Creek police investigated and that Lizarraga lied to the police chief when he said he didn’t suggest prices. It also said he told the chief he purchased the equipment for his family when it was really for personal financial gain.

Lizarraga later wrote a personal money order for $125 to dissuade a witness from participating in a criminal prosecution and then made another bribe attempt using charitable funds from the prison, the report said.

The Bee reported that the corrections report did not say whether Lizarraga was criminally charged and he did not respond to attempts to reach him by phone.

Neither the police chief nor the Amador County District Attorney’s office responded to voicemails, the newspaper said.

The report was heavily redacted, with 11 of 16 allegations blacked out, the Bee said.

Lizarraga was making about $150,000 per year, according to The Sacramento Bee’s state worker pay database.

When he resigned, he received $433,000 in unused vacation, leave time, holiday and weekend pay and other special pay he had accrued, Simas said.

He now collects an $11,500-per-month pension, according to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.