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Sheriff's officials face gift inquiry

The firm that sells snacks and beverages to jail inmates says it spent about $35,000 in 'client hospitality' on executives in eight years.

September 26, 2007|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating whether some of its executives improperly accepted gifts and entertainment from the company that has a multimillion-dollar contract to sell snacks and beverages to County Jail inmates, sheriff's officials said Tuesday.

Compass Group USA Inc. spent about $35,000 on "client hospitality" for sheriff's executives between 1997 and 2005, according to a report released Tuesday by the county auditor-controller. The company sold more than $78 million worth of merchandise to County Jail inmates between 2000 and 2005.

Compass has acknowledged that it often bought lunch during meetings with sheriff's employees. In addition, the company paid for golf outings for sheriff's employees and bought them tickets to a Celine Dion concert, according to one source familiar with the investigation.

During its review, the auditor-controller identified sheriff's employees who accepted about $11,000 worth of gifts from Compass.

The auditor forwarded those names to the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office, but did not disclose the names in Tuesday's report.

The sheriff's investigation will look at whether the executives violated department policy that prohibits employees from accepting gifts from the public and whether the executives followed state law that requires government officials to disclose gifts they receive worth more than $50.

Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the sheriff's Office of Independent Review, which monitors the department's internal-affairs investigations, confirmed the department's investigation into the Compass gifts.

"There's an investigation ongoing. Once it's completed, we can talk about the outcome and the number of people who were held accountable, if any, and we'll describe the incidents," Gennaco said.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca, said the department would release the names of the employees who have been identified as recipients of Compass hospitality, but only after it completes its investigation.

"We're going to release the list, but we can't do that until the internal affairs investigation is completed," Whitmore said. "The Sheriff's Department has decided to release the names so the public doesn't think we're protecting anybody."

Prosecutors are awaiting the completion of the internal affairs investigation before determining whether any sheriff's employees violated criminal law, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

The allegations surfaced during an inspection by the auditor-controller to determine whether Compass had paid the Sheriff's Department the full commissions it owed the county. Under its contract, Compass must pay a portion of profits to the county to be used to provide education, recreation and other services for inmates.

The audit found that Compass had improperly withheld hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions it owed the Sheriff's Department by deducting expenses, including its gifts to sheriff's employees, from its profits.

The company has agreed to repay the county more than $550,000 in shared profit that it improperly withheld, according to Tuesday's report.

With the fee issue resolved, the investigation now turns to the gifts that Compass provided.

The policy prohibiting gratuities from the public is open to interpretation.

Sheriff Lee Baca has accepted more than $40,000 in gifts, including meals and golf outings, since taking office in 1998. In an interview last year, the sheriff said the policy was intended to prevent deputies from accepting gifts from business owners and the public to avoid the appearance that sheriff's services are for sale.

He said the policy did not apply to celebrities who pick up his golf tabs or companies that send him fruit baskets around the holidays.

The sheriff said he gives many of the gifts, including sports tickets and food baskets, to department employees.

He said he reports all gifts worth more than $50 on his statement of economic interest, as required by state law.

Whether the Compass gifts were a violation of department policy is now under review, said Whitmore, the sheriff's spokesman.

"We're certainly going to examine the audit carefully. We take it seriously. And we will then take the next appropriate step. And that depends on what the investigation finds," Whitmore said.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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