A senior police officer who allegedly engaged in "black propaganda" in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster has been heavily criticised by the police watchdog over his behaviour after the publication of an independent report on the tragedy last year.

Sir Norman Bettison, former chief constable of West Yorkshire police, has a case to answer for gross misconduct over his attempts to influence his police authority to present him in the best light after the damning Hillsborough independent panel report was published last September, the IPCC said.

Bettison cannot be disciplined because he has quit the police service and the IPCC said it was unacceptable that senior officers like him were able to retire to avoid disciplinary action and dismissal.

In a report published on Thursday, the police watchdog said Bettison, who was an officer with the South Yorkshire force at the time of Hillsborough, engaged in "discreditable conduct and abuse of authority". Solicitors for Bettison questioned the fairness of the IPCC investigation and said he had himself wished to be investigated by the IPCC.

The IPCC concluded that Bettison had attempted to influence his police authority – West Yorkshire – when it was considering referring him to the police watchdog over his alleged part in a "black propaganda" campaign in the aftermath of the football stadium disaster that killed 96 people.

The police authority called a meeting after publication of the Hillsborough independent panel report, which identified Bettison as a member of a small police team engaged in presenting actions of the South Yorkshire force in the best light after the disaster. The actions of the force were labelled black propaganda in the Commons.

But Bettison, the IPCC said, had intervened and tried to manipulate his police authority as they considered referring him to the police watchdog over the black propaganda claims. Bettison, one of the most senior officers at Hillsborough who was still serving, wanted to make himself look good by taking control of the process. "At issue was his professed desire that he refer himself to the IPCC," it says. Bettison, the IPCC found, did not attempt to stop the referral happening, but the contact he made with Fraser Sampson, the chief executive of West Yorkshire police authority, and Mark Burns-Williamson, its chair, were attempts to influence and manipulate their decision.

"By his own account, Sir Norman was anxious for the complaints against him to be referred to the IPCC, but the evidence demonstrates that he wanted to control the process," the IPCC says.

The IPCC said he had "attempted to manipulate public messages", adding that it was "concerning that his first thoughts appear to have been to protect his own position".

Bettison still faces a more substantial IPCC investigation into the allegations that he played a central role in a propaganda campaign in the aftermath of the disaster that involved South Yorkshire police, the force at the centre of the Hillsborough disaster cover-up – attempting to smear the fans and to put itself in a positive light. Bettison was a chief inspector with South Yorkshire police at the time of the 1989 disaster.

Bettison's solicitor, John Harding, said: "The IPCC has recognised that my client, Sir Norman Bettison, did himself wish to be investigated by the IPCC in connection with allegations made in respect of Hillsborough.

"He remains keen to see that the investigation into the substantive matters is progressed as quickly as possible.

"The IPCC has decided that it considers my client acted improperly in seeking approval from the police authority to refer himself to the IPCC.

"The decision that there is a case to answer is not a finding of guilt. This point is accepted, explicitly, in the foreword of the IPCC report and it therefore sits, uncomfortably, with some of the comments in the investigator's report, made after an incomplete investigation.

"Sir Norman voluntarily attended interview, provided a written statement and invited the IPCC to interview witnesses.

"Since there can be no formal misconduct hearing, my client is denied the opportunity to call those witnesses, which the IPCC declined to interview, and is denied the opportunity to put his case and challenge other evidence, which calls into question the fairness of such a process."