11/16/2005 12:00AM

Jockeys' Guild members clash with former leaders

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Members of the Jockeys' Guild who were trying to gain access to the group's offices in Monrovia, Calif., on Tuesday afternoon scuffled with the group's former chief executive, L. Wayne Gertmenian, and former chief operating officer, Albert Fiss, during a brief confrontation shortly after Gertmenian's employment was terminated, according to several witness.

The confrontation, which was resolved amicably, underlines the tension among guild members as they emerge from Gertmenian's leadership. By the end of the night, Gertmenian and Fiss had agreed not to interfere with the guild members, several people said. The guild and Gertmenian's consulting firm, Matrix Capital Associates, share the same office space.

Gertmenian was fired Tuesday by a newly elected board of directors, ending a 4 1/2-year tenure that will be remembered for a controversial decision in 2002 to allow the guild members' catastrophic insurance coverage to lapse. In addition, the board voted Tuesday to sever ties to Matrix. Gertmenian's annual guild salary was $165,000, and Matrix was paid another $335,000 a year. Fiss, who was fired later in the day, was paid approximately $100,000 a year.

The incident occurred when Gertmenian arrived at the offices late Tuesday afternoon and found Darrell Haire, who had been appointed as a temporary replacement for Gertmenian by the guild's board, and seven jockeys along with auditors from the California Horse Racing Board. Haire and the jockeys, accompanied by a police escort, had gained entry after calling a locksmith because Haire's key did not work. The jockeys said that Haire presented identification confirming that he was a guild employee before the locksmith agreed to open the door.

Gertmenian demanded that Haire and the jockeys leave, and when they refused, Gertmenian shoved Haire to the floor, according to the witnesses. Fiss, who is more than six feet tall and 300 pounds, began physically removing jockeys from the office, although some resisted. The jockeys then called the Monrovia police, who arrived shortly thereafter. No one was detained, and no charges were filed, witnesses said.

"It got really ugly," said Laffit Pincay Jr., the retired Hall of Fame rider, who was present. "I could sense there was going to be trouble when [Gertmenian and Fiss] walked in, because they were really agitated. I don't like confrontations, so I started to walk outside, but then I heard all this shouting, and then I saw Gertmenian push Darrell in the back, and he fell to the floor, and that's when everybody really started in."

The jockeys who accompanied Haire to the offices were Pincay, Jeff Johnston, Alex Solis, Jon Court, Paul Atkinson, Kent Desormeaux, and Jose Valdivia Jr., witnesses said.

Gertmenian, reached at his home on Wednesday, declined to comment on the incident other than to say, "It's been resolved."

Fiss also declined to comment but said that Haire and the jockeys did not have a legitimate claim to enter the offices.

"We arrived back from lunch, and we found that they had broken into the offices," Fiss said. "They were under the impression that they rent the office or have a lease on the office directly. They don't. Matrix pays rent for that office."

When asked to respond to the jockeys' contention that key to the guild's door did not work, Fiss said that the locks were changed last week because somebody lost a key.

"That's standard procedure for any business, that you change the locks when someone loses a key," Fiss said.

Barry Broad, the guild's legal counsel, was not present but mediated the dispute by telephone with the police. Broad said that Haire and the guild members were sent to the offices at the direction of the guild's board to secure the guild's files. Broad said that the auditors from the CHRB were present because the guild had a prior commitment to allow the auditors to review the files.

Broad said that the guild has been served with a subpoena by the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which is conducting an investigation into riders' issues. Members of the subcommittee have said that the guild's previous management had not cooperated with the subpoena, and as of Tuesday, the subcommittee's staff was still seeking documents, Broad said.

"It's our intention to fully comply with that subpoena," Broad said. "It would be a concern if the people who were terminated on Tuesday had access to documents that Congress wants."

Broad said the guild would spend the next several weeks attempting to obtain an accurate account of its finances. He said that the guild had no plans to file bankruptcy and that the organization was believed to be solvent.

Court, who was elected to the guild's board on Tuesday, said that the directors had begun to informally assign tasks that will allow the guild's new managers to start on what he called a "recovery plan."

"We're going to let the people who have talents in one area do the thing they are best at," Court said. "We're now in a position to control the guild's business and move it forward. That's the most important thing."

John Velazquez, the guild's new chairman, said that the highest priority is to secure a lease on the Monrovia office. Broad said that the status of the lease is "one of many riddles," because the guild had no written lease agreement even though it paid rent to Matrix.

Fiss said that Matrix paid rent for the offices directly to the landlord, although the guild contributed to the rent payment by cutting a check to Matrix. The guild's last payment to Matrix covered only its rent through October, Fiss said.

"So they're already 16 days behind on their rent payment," Fiss said.

Meanwhile, Broad said that guild officials will scrutinize the organization's records and its contracts with Gertmenian and Matrix.

"The board of directors has an obligation to seek redress if there's any evidence of impropriety, but frankly, sometimes a bad business deal is just that - a bad deal," Broad said. "Whether it rises to illegal conduct is another matter entirely."

Although Gertmenian would not comment specifically on guild business or respond to questions regarding criticism of his management, he said that he wished the guild well.

"I'm disappointed I could not do more for them," Gertmenian said. "At any point, if they would like my advice or counsel, I will gladly offer it."