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Endless Tax-Paid Vacation

May 30, 2003

Shayne A. Ziska has one great gig. For 2 1/2 years, the prison guard has collected his full salary for sitting home, lifting weights and practicing taekwondo. That's $150,000 of taxpayers' money so far, and counting.

It's perfectly legal, but it's an outrage, the kind of wastefulness that sends taxpayers over the edge at a time when the state faces multibillion-dollar shortfalls.

During the 2 1/2 years, which prison officials call administrative time off, Ziska has continued to build up vacation days and pension benefits. He's collected raises and his paycheck will bump up again in July.

What's the deal here?

The state Department of Corrections suspended Ziska pending the outcome of an FBI probe into his possible association with members of a prison gang, allegations the 41-year-old guard denies. Because Ziska has not been convicted or even formally charged, Civil Service rules prevent prison officials from firing the Chino state prison guard. In fact, the state probably won't fire him unless he's convicted, not just indicted.

Why does the FBI need 2 1/2 years -- and who know how much longer -- to decide whether Ziska was involved with the white supremacist gang?

State corrections officials say the FBI asked them to hold off on their own administrative probe until the feds were finished. That request seems to have been transformed into a gospel. Perhaps Ziska's paid vacation will last until his retirement.

If a state investigation were to turn up wrongdoing, the department could fire Ziska. Lacking that, why can't corrections officials at least find him a desk job away from inmates, or perhaps in another department?

Ziska's absence only adds to prison staff shortages and a 25% surge in overtime hours in the last two years that pushed overtime payouts to $200 million.

Other state departments follow similar policies regarding paid leave, but more corrections staffers benefit from this boondoggle than do employees in all other departments combined. During the last year, 109 prison system employees were out on paid leave for at least 30 days pending investigations, according to The Times' Dan Morain. Ziska has been out the longest.

The guard's story came to light during legislative hearings this month. State lawmakers, who have scheduled more hearings for next month, also need to act, tightening Civil Service rules and renegotiating union contract provisions that now take taxpayers for fools.

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