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Lawyers and auditors in prison agency get the same perks as cops and firefighters

Because they are classified as peace officers, they carry guns, drive state-owned cars and get enhanced pension benefits.

December 01, 2010|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — More than 100 lawyers and auditors working for California's prison oversight office are classified as peace officers, carrying guns, driving state cars home at night and becoming eligible for the generous pensions offered to people who risk their lives in the name of public safety.

None of the 105 sworn peace officers in the California Office of the Inspector General has made an arrest, fired a gun in the line of duty or responded to an emergency in a state car in the last five years, according to a report issued Tuesday by the state Senate. One accidentally shot himself at a practice range.

The police perks, especially the car and the pension that begins at age 50, are used as recruiting tools, inducement for professionals to devote their work lives to California's beleaguered prison system.

The benefits come with a cost to taxpayers. The auditors and lawyers logged about a million miles in their state cars last year; more than 700,000 of those were for the commute between home and office. At 50 cents per mile, which is what the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes estimates it costs to run a state car, that's $350,000.

In addition, the agency's accountants and lawyers would normally have to pay federal income tax for using company cars, but public employees whose jobs require them to carry guns are exempt from such tax under IRS rules.

The Senate researchers who issued the report are urging legislators to review the reasoning, and costs, associated with the perks.

"To justify this peace officer status, state law and administrative rules offer an elaborate rationale that presumes gun-toting auditors and lawyers will engage in police functions such as hand-to-hand combat and high-speed pursuits," the report said.

None of that has happened. In fact, the accountants and lawyers must surrender their guns before entering a prison, the report said.

The biggest benefit of peace officer status is the pension. Most public employees are eligible to collect 2% of their annual salary, multiplied by the number of years worked, starting at age 55. As an acknowledgement of the risks inherent in their jobs, peace officers — traditionally police officers and firefighters — can start collecting 3% of their annual salary, multiplied by the number of years worked, at age 50.

Chief Deputy Inspector Donald Currier, second in command at the prison oversight agency, said the office is willing to give up the guns and cars but not the pensions. The jobs have risky assignments, he said.

"They're not typical police duties, like CHP officers pulling people over all the time who they don't know," Currier said. "But their job is to ferret out criminal wrongdoing in prisons, including abuse of force by correctional officers."

Other auditors who investigate criminal wrongdoing at public agencies, such as those in the state attorney general's office and the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, which investigates the Sheriff's Department, do so without peace officer status, Tuesday's report said.

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) called it a "tragic irony" that the agency entrusted with finding waste and abuse in the nation's largest prison system has "in fact done just the opposite, squandering tax resources for no good reason."

Leno, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, which oversees the agency, said: "It's clear the Legislature needs to take action" to prevent abuse of the peace officer designation.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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