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Second major vendor named in Probation Department investigation

A criminal inquiry into whether a department director steered contracts to specific companies has expanded, targeting two firms owned by the same L.A. businessman.

July 21, 2010|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

A criminal probe into whether Los Angeles County Probation Department managers improperly steered millions of dollars in contracts to specific companies has expanded to include a second major vendor, according to county officials.

Erbie Phillips, a director in a unit responsible for procurement, was placed on paid leave late last month after the FBI and Sheriff's Department officials began investigating his role in securing more than $1 million in contracts for Natural Solutions, a cleaning supplies vendor that officials believe employed him in a second job.

Investigators are now looking into contracts held by Spectrum Surveillance Systems as well. It, like Natural Solutions, is owned by Los Angeles businessman Clark E. Parker.

"This matter is under investigation and there is really nothing more I can say," said Probation Department Chief Donald H. Blevins, who said the quality of Spectrum's work for the county has been "satisfactory."

Since 2003, Spectrum has obtained contracts worth at least $3.1 million to install video cameras, panic alarms and other security equipment, according to department records.

In addition to the base contracts, Spectrum has made more money through contract amendments.

In one instance, Phillips and his boss, Francesca B. Jones, who heads a bureau with procurement responsibilities, made a case for awarding more work to Spectrum over the objections of other Probation Department staff members, according to e-mails reviewed by The Times.

Last summer, during construction of modular staff housing at Challenger Camp in Lancaster, Phillips argued that Spectrum should receive a special contract to move wiring needed for their surveillance system. The building contractor told probation officials he could move the wiring "at no cost and keep the project moving."

"My argument," Phillips wrote June 18, 2009, "is based on not damaging the existing integrated system, and my motives are not driven or controlled by cost, rather they are focused on providing the most effective method for protecting the existing system."

Robert Smythe, then third in command at the Probation Department, reviewed the proposal and wrote: "I've looked it over and over, and I cannot justify spending over $1,056.25 per worker per day on a very simple job."

Jones' unit ultimately gave the work to Spectrum without competitive bidding, according to records.

Phillips could not be reached for comment, and Parker did not return repeated phone calls to his businesses and cellphone.

Blevins placed Phillips on leave in June, one day after The Times requested his financial disclosure form. The form, which certain employees are required to complete annually, listed no reportable gifts, investments or outside employment. Blevins said Phillips appears to have had recent employment at one of Clark's companies, Natural Solutions.

Officials acknowledged that Spectrum was part of the criminal probe after The Times learned of the e-mails about the construction project at Challenger Camp. In the end, moving the wiring delayed the housing project for months, and Spectrum was paid tens of thousands of dollars to complete the work, according to Probation Department records.

Jones, who agreed in the e-mails to Spectrum's noncompetitive contract, did not return calls seeking comment.

Blevins declined to say whether anyone other than Phillips had been placed on leave because of the investigation. Blevins said last week that Jones remained on the job, and department officials did not respond to inquiries about Jones' status Tuesday.

Contracts with Parker's companies remain in place, Blevins said, but he noted that all department contracts are under review because of a budget shortfall.

Blevins was hired earlier this year to clean up the department, widely viewed as one of the most troubled agencies in county government.

Among the key problems he faces is an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division into conditions for minors held in the county's probation camps and halls, including misuse of force and a broken internal affairs system.

The department has also struggled to account for $79 million spent in addressing Justice Department concerns.

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