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L.A. County supervisors call for changes in Probation Department after latest scandal

Allegations that employees used agency credit cards and gift cards to buy televisions, DVD players, video games and other items that cannot be located. Supervisors blame long-term management problems.

June 17, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County supervisors Wednesday called for fundamental changes in the Probation Department after allegations that employees used department credit cards and gift cards to purchase flat-screen televisions, DVD players, video games and other items that have since gone missing.

The department's new chief has asked the district attorney's office to look into the allegations against probation employees to determine whether they involve criminal wrongdoing.

Donald H. Blevins, who took over the agency two months ago, promised Wednesday to "clean up" an operation that he said "lacks accountability, has substandard management practices, lacks internal control, and operational oversight."

Past managers had allowed "questionable activities to take place and tarnish the credibility and reputation" of the department, he said in a written statement.

The allegations of possibly fraudulent purchases are the latest in a line of problems for the department, whose 6,000 employees supervise about 80,000 youth and adult probationers in the county.

Already, poor conditions at the county's juvenile probation camps and halls have led to nearly a decade of monitoring by the U.S. Department of Justice. And last month, the county's chief executive began investigating why the department could not account for $79.5 million that was supposed to have been spent to improve juvenile services. Officials have spent two months scrutinizing payroll forms to try to determine who has been hired with those funds.

Evidence of potential misuse of county credit cards emerged in a draft of an audit distributed to top county officials this week. The Times obtained a summary, which showed:

• Probation employees obtained gift cards and store credit cards in the department's name from Best Buy, Home Depot, Sears and other stores, then used the cards to make non-emergency purchases — lawnmowers, barbecues, LCD televisions, Sony PlayStations, DVD players and video games. It is against department policy to buy gift cards, Blevins said Wednesday.

• Some of the purchases also were not approved by department supervisors. Some merchandise could not be located or was never used. Of nine PlayStations, six were missing, as well as 90% of the video games, according to the summary. After auditors notified the county, the cards were canceled.

• Probation staff failed to get required price quotes and approval for purchases and failed to justify sole-source suppliers and split purchases.

County supervisors have been aware of major problems at the Probation Department for years, but they have a decidedly mixed record in their efforts to improve its conditions. The Times reported in March that over the previous year, the department had failed to discipline 170 employees found to have committed misconduct or abuse.

"The Probation Department has lost its sense of mission. The mission became more about them than about the clients they serve," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky after learning about the latest allegations.

Blevins said he was shocked by the audit findings, which cover 2007 through 2009.

"I'm really angry," Blevins said in an interview. "When I took over, obviously I kind of knew there were problems," he said. "Every day [there is] something else we uncover."

"Essentially, you've got staff that ordered things that disappeared," he said. "There appears to be very little oversight in this department when it comes to these things and kind of a lackadaisical attitude about, 'Hey, it's county money — we can do with it what we want.' "

County Chief Executive William T Fujioka said the allegations, if true, are "absolutely unacceptable, and we're going to get to the bottom of it."

Auditor-Controller Wendy L. Watanabe said officials are still investigating how many employees were involved in improper purchases or how much money was spent using the gift cards and credit cards. The audit was based on a random sample of records; officials are now going through all records. The full audit is expected to be completed in 30 days, she said.

Blevins said he believes that the total is in the thousands of dollars. As for the missing merchandise, Blevins said officials don't know whether the items were being used somewhere in the department or had been taken by employees for personal use.

Regardless, Yaroslavsky and other officials said the case underscores problems in the agency's management.

Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Gloria Molina said they plan to ask the board next week to make it possible for Blevins to hire managers from outside the department rather than promote from within, as required by civil service rules.

Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich also will ask the board to hire two lawyers from the county's Office of Independent Review to take over the department's internal investigations and discipline.

"Blevins needs to reconstruct the department from top to bottom with an emphasis on the management level because management obviously broke down, not just in the last few weeks and months but for years," Yaroslavsky said. "It's going to be about political and administrative will to stand up to individuals in the department who have had their way for too long. We need to turn it back into a law-abiding, rule-abiding meritocracy."

Supervisor Don Knabe said the audit shows the need for more controls.

"The minute you begin issuing credit cards under the name of a government agency, you start a slippery slope that can often lead to exactly this type of fraud," he said in a statement. "Credit cards need the tightest of controls and checks, and that clearly failed here."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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