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Supervisors Order Audit of Jobs Agency : Inquiry: The board calls it a routine measure. But a source says the action is taken as the state winds down a probe of the council's contracts.

October 12, 1994|JEFF McDONALD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Board of Supervisors ordered an audit of Ventura County's job-training agency Tuesday as state investigators probed possible criminal fraud by agency officials suspected of illegally awarding contracts to friends and associates, The Times has learned.

County supervisors said they approved an audit of the Job Training Policy Council's financial records as a routine measure, since the panel distributes millions of dollars in federal funds each year and the county must make sure the money is spent properly.

The board, however, took the action as state investigators are winding down a two-month probe of the job agency's contracts, a source close to the investigation said.

Investigators may request criminal charges from the state attorney general's office within several weeks, the source said, or the state Employment Development Department could impose administrative penalties.

The state employment agency monitors how local job councils spend federal training grants.

"There are several allegations and several contracts (under investigation)," the source said.

Two local officials interviewed by state investigator Carol Nolan confirmed they were asked about how the JTPC awards its contracts. And one, Oxnard city jobs coordinator Ephren Gore, said he believes "cronyism" permeates the agency's decisions.

Both said they expect to give sworn statements in the case soon.

The 20-member jobs council spends more than $11 million annually training poor people throughout the county to work. At monthly meetings, the council awards contracts to schools, cities and other agencies that promise to spend the money putting people to work.

Meanwhile, under amendments to a federal law effective this year, elected officials who appoint members of the jobs council can be held liable for financial improprieties of agency officials or employees.

Supervisor Susan K. Lacey, who proposed the county audit along with Supervisor John K. Flynn, said previously the new audit was strictly the result of the new law.

But Tuesday, she conceded that she knew second-hand about the state's criminal investigation.

"We have heard that, but we don't have any real knowledge of it," Lacey said. "We had this (audit proposal) all under way. During the process of doing this, that (state probe) came to light."

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State labor investigators have been in Ventura County for weeks, conducting private interviews of former and current members of the jobs council, its staff members and officials whose agencies have applied for grants.

The investigation is separate from previous federal inquiries into Job Training Policy Council activities throughout the 1980s. In one, the U.S. Labor Department concluded in 1993 that the jobs panel improperly spent more than $500,000, and ordered the money repaid.

Jobs council Chairwoman Jacqueline Richardson said subsequent reviews reduced that obligation to less than $5,000, which the council repaid.

Richardson said she knows nothing of the new inquiry. If one exists, she said, it was probably prompted by a disgruntled bidder passed over for a contract.

"The state has an obligation to follow up any grievances, and the JTPC encourages any investigation whatsoever," Richardson said. "I feel comfortable that there is no misappropriation of funds."

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One witness in the probe said he was interviewed by the investigator in late August or early September.

"They're just looking into certain allegations . . . that were filed to the state or the federal agencies," said Jim Compton, a former member of the jobs council.

Compton said he was told that he would be asked to sign an affidavit regarding his knowledge of alleged improprieties within days.

"I haven't signed it, but I'm going to be asked to sign something soon," said Compton, director of occupational programs at the county superintendent of schools office.

The new investigation focuses on contracts awarded since January, 1990, when a former executive director of the jobs council was fired, sources said.

John Chase, who had run the agency since its creation in 1984, was replaced amid allegations that he worked full time for two job training agencies at the same time, awarded federal contracts from one of the agencies to the other, and improperly awarded at least $10,000 to his own consulting firm.

A criminal inquiry into Chase's conduct, however, ended without charges in 1992, when a county grand jury found insufficient evidence to press the case. Chase's conduct is not the subject of the current inquiry, sources said.

Gore, the Oxnard employee who bids for jobs council contracts, said he told state investigators that the jobs council routinely practices favoritism in assigning grants.

He said he has had trouble getting fair treatment from some agency managers. Specifically, he complained about Executive Director Francisco De Leon, Programs Manager Roberto De La Selva and staff worker Armando Lopez.

"There's tremendous community support for this investigation," said Gore, who also said he expects to sign an affidavit soon.

"You're talking about control by three or four people," Gore said. "That's what they've been doing all these years. They've been burning people they don't like."

De Leon dismissed Gore's complaint. "Gore's probably not happy with some of the funding recommendations that we made," he said.

The executive director said every jobs contract goes through a strict review before being awarded to the worthiest bidder. "Anytime you have competition, you have winners and losers," De Leon said.

County Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon said the county audit will be conducted by his staff. It could be completed in as few as eight or 10 hours if auditors find nothing wrong, he said.

"But if it ends up taking a considerable amount of time, then we would bill the JTPC," Mahon said.

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