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Light Up L.A. Sheriff's Spending

Supervisors must realize that nothing less than a full audit will do

November 06, 1996

By this point, anyone concerned about Los Angeles County finances and the apocalyptic warnings from Sheriff Sherman Block every year at budget time has a question: Just what will it take to get the Board of Supervisors to seek an audit of the sheriff's spending?

Despite serious issues dating back at least 10 years (such as the stonewalling of a county auditor in 1986), nothing much was done until a series on the Sheriff's Department appeared in The Times this week. The series was rich in details that could raise the bile of even the most jaded taxpayer, and it goaded the supervisors to search for some collective backbone.

Alas, their response has been predictable and disappointing. The pattern is familiar. Perhaps it's no surprise that Block's most ardent critic, Zev Yaroslavsky, is the board member with the shortest time in office. The others, as typical for supervisors over the last decade, have fallen into the trap of treating the veteran sheriff and his budget as politically sacrosanct. During Block's tenure, the board usually has accepted flimsy information about his internal spending. And it has often backed down when Block threatened to file lawsuits or claimed that budget cuts would force layoffs of deputies, early release of inmates and closing of jails.

The supervisors also have been dazzled, if not actually intimidated, by the sheriff's avuncular and folksy image among voters. In fact, members of the five-seat board traditionally have longed for Block's endorsement and even his active campaign help. They have seemed unaware that the political love fest was making it difficult for them to take a critical look at Block's fiscal demands.

Just how could the supervisors inspire public curiosity over the sheriff's budget when they had done nothing to provide solid oversight? Just how could the public respond appropriately when it had no information?

Well, there is some information now. Block has had far more budgetary options than he has let on, and some questionable purchases have been made. Examples: the three Mercury Marquis sedans at the sheriff's disposal, including one that is gathering dust until the other two wear out; expensive premium coffee delivered daily to prisoners and staff members at county jails, and jail-menu chicken of a higher quality than that served to U.S. troops. More? Rejection of low bids for million-dollar-plus contracts; $466 toasters for jail kitchens and $65 mop buckets; food contracts that experts say could have been shaved by as much as $800,000 a year.

How about the range of cable and video movie choices so entertaining that some inmates claim they have tried to prolong their terms? The movies, Sheriff's Department officials say, are meant to avert disturbances by keeping the inmates occupied. Violence-heavy favorites include one showing a person's head being crushed in a vise.

These apparent excesses bring into question the focus of the Sheriff's Department. Where is the necessary official concentration on the budget? What about the doubts that hang over the running of the county jails, which have an outdated paperwork system that has allowed the improper release of more than 35 prisoners--including three murder suspects--since January 1995? And then there is the distressing delay in opening the state-of-the-art Twin Towers jail.

Now, belatedly, the board wants to know whether the sheriff is wasting taxpayer money. Well, the sheriff's budget is $1.1 billion, bigger than those of most counties and cities around the country. Running it is a big task. But it's time to lay the budget wide open. Nothing short of a full audit will suffice.

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