Ventura County's public education and farming interests dominated a list of contributors released Tuesday who so far have donated $155,000 to fund the district attorney's prosecution of workers' compensation fraud cases.
Agricultural firms and the Ventura County Schools Self-Funding Authority donated the bulk of the money dedicated to cracking down on organized "workers' comp mills" and other egregious cases of falsified claims to collect workers' compensation insurance benefits.
Dist. Atty Michael D. Bradbury proposed the privately funded program last year, saying he could not afford to prosecute workers' compensation fraud cases because of continuing budget cuts. He said his office's budget has been cut $1.5 million since 1990, and faces another $1 million this coming fiscal year.
But legal scholars have questioned the ethics of using private money to finance public prosecutions, raising issues of potential conflict of interest and favoritism.
Last month, Bradbury defended the integrity of the yearlong pilot project, saying there were safeguards against any conflicts, including a provision that the money would be collected in a blind trust and he and his staff members would not know the identity of contributors.
When the list went public Tuesday, Bradbury said exposing the contributors provides "an even greater assurance" against even the appearance of any favoritism because people know who has given money to the fund.
A Ventura County coalition of most public schools donated the largest amount by far: $70,000 to help pay for a full-time prosecutor and investigator to weed out and convict fraudulent claimants and keep its future insurance rates down.
"We're not taking money out of the classrooms," said Paul Wilhelmsen, the agency's executive director. "We feel the workers' compensation fraud unit is a very sound risk-management tool to help lower those (insurance) costs so we can give money back to the contributing districts."
The board of directors donated less than 1% of the $7 million it pays out annually for workers' compensation insurance and reserves, said Wilhelmsen, whose coalition includes most of the school districts in Ventura County.
A list of 86 contributors to the special fund was released by county Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon on Tuesday after a request by The Times under the California Public Records Act.
Other than the $70,000 contribution by the schools, none of the donations exceeded $10,000. But many of those who gave money to the district attorney's project included fruit and vegetable packinghouses.
"The agriculture industry in Ventura County has a very large payroll," said Carolyn Leavens, a Ventura avocado and lemon grower who acknowledged that she contributed to the fund. "The difficulties we have are with the hard labor that makes for large numbers of claims, so the packinghouse boards have decided to contribute as a group.
"The fraudulent claims add to the cost of both the worker and the employer," Leavens said. "Very often there are an awful lot of attorneys making a good fat living off (employers and employees) without doing any good for the economy."
Ventura Unified School District Trustee Terence M. Kilbride, who also works under Bradbury as a deputy district attorney, said he sees nothing wrong with using public school dollars to fund criminal prosecutions
"If they can save a substantial amount of money for the district, I imagine it would be a good program," he said. "If they're the subject of the fraud and money can be saved, I suppose it is appropriate."
The county superintendent of schools agreed it was a good investment if it helps curb fraudulent claims.
"It's money that's in a fund that deals with workers' compensation," Supt. James F. Cowan said. "In the view of the joint powers authority, investing that money would save the districts more than that by reducing the numbers of claims."
Leavens said that without Bradbury's plan, "comp fraud mills" would migrate across the Los Angeles County lines into Ventura County.
"We have the most costly workers' comp in the nation, yet the benefits the actual workers get ranks 44th lowest," she said. "It's one of the major items that is damaging California's business competitiveness and making it very difficult for us to stay in business."
Bradbury predicted the program would serve as a deterrent to unscrupulous professionals who process fake workers' compensation insurance claims.
"Our folks know who the bad guys are in this whole operation," he said. "We'll be conducting some sting operations and we will target clinics, both medical and legal. And lawyers and doctors do not want to go to jail."
Top Contributors to Workers' Comp Fraud Unit Ventura County schools: $70,000
Saticoy Lemon Assn., Santa Paula: $9,288
Fillmore-Piru Citrus, Fillmore: $7,500
Limoneira Co., Santa Paula: $5,908
Boskovich Farms, Oxnard: $5,000
Pictsweet, Oxnard and Ventura: $5,000
Ventura County Agricultural Assn.: $5,000
Agricultural Assn. Insurance Services: $5,000
Westside Strawberry Farms Inc., Oxnard: $5,000
Hiji Bros. Inc., Oxnard: $3,500
Source: Ventura County Auditor-Controller