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Ex-Chief Insists He Didn't Steal but Admits He Knew Money Was Missing : Police: Ebert says he covered up the $5,000 loss from drug-buy fund to avoid disgracing the department.

April 25, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COMPTON — A former Compton police chief charged with stealing $5,000 from a department drug-buy fund said he did not take the money, but admitted to investigators that he tried to cover up the theft.

Terry Ebert told investigators from the city and the district attorney's office that he tried to fool city auditors inspecting his accounts because he did not want the department disgraced by allegations of thievery.

Ebert faces one felony count of grand theft in connection with the missing funds.

An audit of 2 1/2 years of Police Department accounting also revealed misuse of funds, shoddy accounting practices and other missing money, according to court records.

All told, nearly $28,000 in cash, savings bonds and food stamps that were supposed to be in the department's vault is unaccounted for, aside from the $5,000 that Ebert is accused of stealing, the audit says. Most of the money belonged to crime victims, to suspects whose money was being held as evidence for trial, or to offenders serving time in jail.

Ebert said he knew nothing of the missing $28,000 in cash and property, but added that some of the mystery may be solved during his trial. He is scheduled for arraignment May 6.

"I don't want to get into naming names right now," Ebert said. "All that will come out in the court trial."

The charges against Ebert center on cash that was kept in a locked, 8-by 10-inch metal box. The money was used in sting operations by narcotics detectives who pretended to be drug buyers.

The box was kept in a locked cabinet in the chief's office and Ebert had the only key, he told investigators. Sometime be tween October, 1991, and March, 1992, Ebert said he discovered that $5,000 was missing from the box.

He told no one of the missing money and intended to investigate but never got around to it, he told a district attorney's investigator.

When auditors descended on his department a year ago, Ebert covered up the theft by having a property officer take money from envelopes in the police vault, which Ebert then put in the drug-buy box, he told investigators.

The ruse was successful at first. But an anonymous caller from the Police Department tipped off City Controller Helen Tyler, according to court records. The caller told Tyler to count money in the drug-buy box and property vault at the same time.

When Tyler did a second audit on April 23, 1992, Ebert said the money had been stolen from his office and he was attempting to find the culprit.

The city hired a private investigator who offered his findings four days later. The drug buy fund was stolen while in Ebert's sole possession, concluded investigator Raul J. Bracamonte, and Ebert had attempted a cover-up.

On April 29 last year, hours before rioting began in the wake of the not guilty verdicts in the state trial of four police officers charged with beating Rodney G. King, Ebert was placed on administrative leave pending an outside audit.

Throughout the department's accounts, auditors found instances of faulty addition, poor record-keeping and misuse of funds. The drug-buy fund, for instance, was often used for petty cash by narcotics officers.

The final audit dated May 27 also found $19,531 missing from the property vault and $8,383 missing from the bail account, aside from the $5,000 gone from the drug-buy box.

The bail fund contained cash given by defendants as a promise they will return for court appearances. The audit said $8,383 in cash could not be located.

In the vault's property locker, auditor Laura W. Gordon found money missing from 47 case envelopes in amounts ranging from $3,200 to 31 cents, according to her report. About $1,500 of that money was counterfeit.

Four of those envelopes were found in Ebert's locked desk drawer--minus the $976 they should have contained--according to Bracamonte's report. Ebert has not been charged in connection with those envelopes, however, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry White.

Compton officials agree that an audit of department funds showed there was less money in the vaults than there should have been, but say accounting errors could be the culprit.

"I'm optimistic we will be able to account for most of that money," said Police Chief Hourie Taylor, who officially took over the department Jan. 1. Taylor had been acting chief since April 29.

Gordon made several suggestions for tightening controls over the accounts, such as limiting the number of people with access to the vaults, using funds only for their stated purposes and making sure personnel put all financial transactions in the proper log.

The Police Department has implemented all of Gordon's suggestions, City Manager Howard Caldwell said. "Money from the property and bail accounts is now taken directly to the City Treasurer's office, then deposited in the bank," Caldwell said. "It doesn't stay in the department anymore."

In the meantime, Ebert filed a stress disability claim against the city last May, saying he developed stomach problems on April 29. After 23 years on the Compton force, including two as chief, Ebert retired in August. The city settled his disability claim in September, offering him $12,500.

Ebert accepted the offer, but the state's Public Employee Retirement System overruled the city and bumped Ebert's award to $15,000, he said. Ebert received the disability award in addition to his retirement: 50% of his $89,000 yearly salary.

The former police chief submitted to an interview with prosecutors in January without his attorney present. He believed the matter was settled, he said, until the grand-theft charge was filed against him April 13.

"I thought this was all behind me," said Ebert, who is hoping to become an elementary school teacher. "It was a shock when it all popped up again."

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