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Sheriff's Donors Target of Probe

The attorney general looks into an advisory group that gave money to Lee Baca's campaigns and offered to assist in department inquiries.

September 16, 2006|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The state attorney general is investigating Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's Homeland Security Support Unit, a group of local businessmen who volunteered to assist the department with investigations and donated money to the sheriff's political campaigns.

The department has suspended the unit, which had about 50 members, pending the outcome of the state investigation and its own internal affairs review, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Friday.

Officials have declined to discuss the nature of the investigation, but it is being handled by the unit that oversees nonprofit charities in California. The tire salesman who runs the homeland security group has said members helped raise money for charity, but the group was not registered as a nonprofit.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Sonja Berndt informed Undersheriff Larry Waldie of the state investigation in an Aug. 18 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. Berndt asked Waldie to provide her office with the results of the sheriff's internal affairs investigation.

"We're going to give them whatever they want. We will cooperate fully with the attorney general," Whitmore said. "The sheriff wants things done right. They will be done right or they won't be done at all."

Gary Nalbandian, the Glendora tire shop owner who was the group's director, declined to discuss the investigations.

The investigation comes as the attorney general is preparing a legal opinion about whether state law permits sheriffs and other law enforcement officials to issue honorary badges and credentials to the public. Members of the Homeland Security Support Unit were issued photo identification cards bearing Baca's signature and the Sheriff's Department's star-shaped emblem.

The Homeland Security Support Unit was one of three organizations operated by Nalbandian, who also oversaw the San Bernardino County district attorney's "Bureau of Justice" and the Riverside County sheriff's "Executive Council."

San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos and Riverside Sheriff Bob Doyle issued badges to members but later revoked them and disbanded the organizations.

Members of the three groups donated more than $150,000 to the political campaigns of Baca, Ramos and Doyle, campaign records show, leading some to question whether the badges and credentials were issued as political favors.

Concerned that Doyle had issued badges to some of his donors, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone proposed a county ordinance that would have restricted badges to law enforcement personnel and elected officials. The measure did not pass.

Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, declined this week to discuss the investigation of the Homeland Security Support Unit. Earlier this year, Baca said he was troubled to learn that the unit had not registered as a nonprofit even though it held fundraising dinners in 2004 and 2005 and advertised that contributions were tax deductible.

The Times reported in March that several members of the Homeland Security Support Unit said they were required to pay initiation fees and monthly dues, allegations that the group's director denied.

Nalbandian said earlier this year that he ran a social club that collected dues, but the fees were not related to the Homeland Security Support Unit.

The Homeland Security Support Unit is one of dozens of advisory groups that Baca authorized to extend the department's reach into the community. The sheriff said Nalbandian and other members of the group offered to provide tips about terrorism and said they would translate Arabic-language documents for investigators.

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