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Leaves Cost O.C. $1.5 Million Over 5 Years

Paid suspensions in a single agency totaled 7,771 days. Lengthy inquiries are blamed.

May 12, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

One was an Orange County probation counselor charged with misleading the FBI during an investigation of corruption in Santa Ana City Hall, where he sat on the City Council.

Another was a probation officer accused of printing confidential criminal records and giving them to his wife, an attorney, to use to prepare a case.

They are among the 50 Orange County Probation Department employees who received suspensions with full pay and benefits during the last five years, according to a county report released last week. Probation workers have served a combined 7,771 days on paid administrative leave since 1998, numbers that have attracted the attention of the Board of Supervisors.

With about 1,300 budgeted employees, probation is the fourth-largest department in Orange County. Yet it ranks first in the use of administrative leave, a tool intended to keep workers out of the office while they are investigated for wrongdoing.

Supervisors Bill Campbell and Chris Norby have asked for an explanation about the high rate of paid leave. They said it was disturbing to learn that the 50 suspended probation employees spent an average of 155 work days on leave with full pay -- receiving more than $1.5 million in salary and benefits while off the job -- as the county prepares to face painful budget cuts.

"These cases should get adjudicated quickly. County employees should be paid to work," Norby said.

Stephanie Lewis, the county's chief probation officer, said she was ordered to refer questions about the issue to the County Executive Office, which declined to discuss it.

"Administrative leave is a personnel issue. We don't talk about personnel issues," executive office spokeswoman Diane Thomas said.

She did point out that the county's law-enforcement agencies -- the sheriff, district attorney and probation departments -- are more likely to use administrative leave because of the nature of their work and because of the state's Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which gives many of their employees extra protection in disciplinary proceedings.

Indeed, the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office also have granted more administrative leave than most departments. Overall, Orange County employees have received nearly 22,000 days of paid suspension since 1998, at a cost of $5.8 million in salary and benefits.

Concerns about the use of administrative leave in Orange County come at the same time state lawmakers are monitoring the use of paid leave by the state's prison guards. Dozens of guards have been on paid leave for more than 30 days, one for more than two years, the department reported last week.

Complaints about the Probation Department were raised last year by a worker who wrote the Board of Supervisors about what she described as mismanagement in the department. Among several complaints, Paula Skerston alleged that managers "intentionally waste taxpayer money" by spending months on personnel investigations while workers are on paid administrative leave.

Skerston sued the department in federal court last month alleging that managers retaliated against her for reporting violations of department policy at Orange County Juvenile Hall. She said she served 16 months of administrative leave in two separate incidents, but is now back at work.

"The probation department's practice is to take an extremely long time to conduct investigations," she wrote. "Simple investigations that should take a few days are dragged out for a year."

Former Orange County Probation Officer William Shumate said he has an idea why paid suspensions last so long in the Probation Department. He served nearly two years of paid administrative leave after officials discovered in October 1999 that he had given confidential criminal records to his wife, an attorney, who wanted to use them in a case. Prosecutors charged him with a misdemeanor for disclosing confidential records, but the charge was dismissed and he was reinstated in October 2001.

"I think I hold the record for most weeks off with pay by any employee in the department," said Shumate, who retired last year and now lives in Las Vegas.

Shumate said he believes management in the Probation Department is not efficient at investigating employees and does not think twice about keeping workers on paid leave for many months while trying to build the perfect disciplinary case.

"It took them seven, eight, nine months [of paid leave] before they even talked to me," Shumate said. "They're looking for a slam-dunk way to fire someone. They make sure every 't' is crossed and 'i' is dotted so they won't lose an arbitration."

Shumate spent more than 500 days on paid administrative leave and was paid about $150,000 in salary and benefits while under orders to stay home from work. Workers on administrative leave are ordered to remain available during work hours and must fill their time with hobbies and household chores.

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