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Board settled Beck lawsuit : Two workers accused him of trying to cover up alleged misuse of city funds. He was cleared of wrongdoing.

November 15, 2009|Jason Felch

Los Angeles Police chief-designate Charlie Beck is widely admired as a capable manager who has tackled some of the department's thorniest issues with a steady hand and a disarming personality.

He is credited with cleaning up the Rampart Division, ferreting out disarray in the crime lab and championing greater transparency and accountability in the department.

But a Times review of court records found one incident over his 32-year career in which Beck was accused of mishandling a crisis, stifling reform and covering up the misuse of taxpayer money.

The allegations, which Beck denies, were never proved. They involved Beck's role as a board member of the Los Angeles Police Relief Assn., a nonprofit that receives millions of dollars a month in city subsidies to manage health benefits for most of the city's police officers.

Beck was president of the board -- a volunteer position -- nearly a decade ago when two former employees filed whistleblower lawsuits alleging that they were pushed out after uncovering mismanagement and misconduct.

In an interview Friday, Beck acknowledged there were administrative problems at the association. He said he had acted properly, and he pointed out that a city audit and police internal affairs investigation cleared him and others of any wrongdoing.

Police Relief eventually settled the lawsuits out of court for more than $1.2 million, according to sources familiar with the terms, which are covered by nondisclosure agreements.

Asked why the cases were settled, Beck said it was on the advice of the board's attorneys: "Sometimes it's in the best interests of the organization."

Beck joined the unpaid board of the Police Relief Assn. in 1994. His father, LAPD veteran George Beck, had also served on the board of the organization, which was founded in 1919 to provide support and services to the widows and orphans of fallen police officers and later began to administer health, dental and death benefits for most police officers.

Little had changed over the years. Though the association's membership had swollen to some 15,000 members, recordkeeping was still done mostly by hand and the archaic membership database occasionally listed dead or retired officers as active members, records show.

Those problems and others were exposed shortly after the board learned in 1999 that its executive director falsified her overtime and vacation benefits. As board president, Beck fired her and encouraged his colleagues to hire an old friend, Ramona Voge, as the new executive director. Beck knew Voge from their days working together at LAPD's Internal Affairs Group, where she was a civilian employee.

At the time, Beck believed she was a "strong supervisor" who could help "straighten out" some of the administrative problems the board had become aware of, he said.

Voge soon discovered the problems were even worse than the board had imagined, according to her lawsuit.

Some officers were not getting the benefits they deserved, she found, while some board members were receiving too much. She figured out that the association had overbilled the city as much as $500,000 a year and that a recent board election had been rigged by staff.

When she urged the board to be more transparent about the organization's finances, she alleged that Beck told her she had been hired to "stand firm against any attempts by the city" and the police union to delve into the organization's finances and operations.

The tension between Voge and the board came to a head in October 2000. Voge said she warned the board that the problems with the membership database might be discovered by city auditors. Two days later, Beck and another board member gave Voge a negative performance review and placed her on administrative leave, saying she had lied to board members, court records show.

Beck later attempted to negotiate a severance agreement. When Voge declined the offer, she was terminated by the board, which cited her alleged dishonesty.

The unrest at Police Relief sent ripples through the upper ranks of City Hall and the police administration. The LAPD launched an internal affairs investigation but found no merit in Voge's allegations, Beck said. The city controller also decided to investigate Voge's allegations in an audit of the association. The decision was highly sensitive, former city officials recall. An outside firm was hired to conduct the audit, and its work was overseen by a task force that included members from the city's pension and personnel departments and the controller's and city attorney's offices.

As Police Relief prepared for the audit, Voge's deputy, Irma Perez, alleged that board members were trying to cover up its problems. In her lawsuit, she described an early 2001 board meeting in which she alleged Beck told her to falsify information that was to be provided to city auditors.

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