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Sheriff Has Virtually Free Rein Over Agency Spending

Finance: County board is largely reluctant to challenge the popular Block. He says laws give him fiscal autonomy.

November 04, 1996|JOSH MEYER and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and his entourage strode toward the dais to discuss his billion-dollar budget with the Board of Supervisors this summer, the panel's chairman suggested a new title for the august lawman.

"Maybe we should call you 'Your Eminence,' " Supervisor Mike Antonovich said with a smile.

It was meant as a lighthearted homage to the popular Los Angeles sheriff, one of only three men to hold the job since the Depression. But the remark also spoke volumes about Block's unmatched power in the county's insular political culture--a reality not lost on those who are supposed to be keeping an eye on his department.

In fact, the sheriff is treated like royalty--seldom challenged, constantly courted.

A fierce protector of his realm, Block is allowed to run one of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies with virtually no budgetary oversight from the Board of Supervisors or from auditors skilled in finding wastefulness.

"Every elected official, including the president of the United States and a county supervisor, has to disclose how they spend their money, and you don't have to go on a wild goose chase to find it," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the board's newest member. "The same level of fiscal scrutiny does not exist with the sheriff."

But even Yaroslavsky, who has been Block's sharpest critic on the board, knows the political score. The supervisor recently asked the sheriff to attend a fund-raiser and personally present him with a plaque Yaroslavsky won during Block's charity golf tournament.

"It's nice to have the sheriff supporting you," Yaroslavsky said. "It's much better to have it than not to have it."

The sheriff, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has steadfastly maintained that he oversees the leanest law enforcement shop around--despite large sums in questionable expenses uncovered in a Times investigation.

As an elected official, Block insists that state and local laws give him the right to operate with fiscal autonomy or, as his budget chief says, without other county officials and reporters "snooping around our daily business."

"Yeah, we're suspicious--there's no doubt about it," said the sheriff's finance director, Fred M. Ramirez. "It's normal in any bureaucracy. [The reaction is:] Why are you coming and looking at us?"

Outsiders, Ramirez said, do not know enough to meddle in the business of running such a large and varied law enforcement agency. "I'm not sure you can do that from an ivory tower at 500 West Temple" (home to the supervisors' offices), Ramirez said.

For now, he needn't worry.

The reality is that the supervisors have long treated Block with kid gloves, recoiling from one potential fiscal showdown after the next. Consider the fiasco surrounding the Twin Towers Correctional Facility:

For more than a year, the $373-million jail has stood empty on the northeastern outskirts of downtown while tens of thousands of county inmates at other facilities have been freed because of severe overcrowding after serving less time than in any other major jail system in the country.

Block insisted for months that there was no money in his budget to operate the place. When supervisors considered directing him and other department heads to trim their budgets to help underwrite Twin Towers, a defiant Block warned the board that he would have to yank nearly 400 deputies off the streets of their districts to find $14 million.

The supervisors backed off, but public pressure mounted, forcing the sheriff's hand. Suddenly, amid much fanfare, he announced before the board in September that he had found $25 million in savings and $37 million in outside sources of revenue to open the state-of-the-art facility.

The supervisors did not grill the sheriff about why he hadn't been able to come up with the money sooner. Instead, they congratulated him.

Who's Keeping Track?

Although the supervisors occasionally do complain that they know too little about the Sheriff's Department's mammoth budget, they seldom have taken the initiative to closely track the money they have given him, the largest chunk of county tax revenues the board doles out each year.

Many large law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, are overseen by standing independent police commissions and inspectors general. But not the Sheriff's Department. And at no time in recent memory have the supervisors dispatched their own auditors--or specialized consultants from the private sector--to undertake any kind of comprehensive review of the sheriff's books.

Some experts say such efficiency studies could identify a combination of savings and new revenue sources amounting to 5% or even 10% of Block's $1.1-billion budget.

"You are talking tremendous amounts of money, and somebody should be on top of that," said veteran auditor Roger Mialocq, vice president of the Harvey Rose Accountancy firm, which has found millions of dollars in potential savings at other California sheriff's departments.

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