Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca says he has not accepted gifts that would… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has accepted gifts from executives seeking his agency's business, individuals who later received special treatment from him, and even a pair of felons implicated in a massive money-laundering and fraud scheme, according to a Times review of disclosure records.
Donors have lavished on Baca free rounds of golf, meals, fine wines and liquor, and tickets to sporting events.
Since becoming sheriff in 1998, he has accepted more than $120,000 worth of gifts and free travel. In a recent three-year span, he accepted significantly more freebies than California's 57 other sheriffs combined.
State law allows local officials to accept gifts, with some restrictions. But government watchdogs said Baca's willingness to accept so many gifts creates potential conflicts of interest.
"Doesn't he realize the appearance is terrible?" said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "When you're taking gifts from strangers, there's only one reason. They only give gifts because they want something."
Baca rejected the notion that donors were looking for special favors or treatment.
"The implication of all these gifts is 'Well, they're influence-buying.' Nothing could be more opposite than that," he said. "What they're expressing is appreciation for the respectful way we do business."
He said that it would not be practical for him to do a background checks on gift-givers and that refusing their tokens would be insulting. Sometimes, Baca said, he passes the gifts along to members of his department. He said he wished there were a state or local law prohibiting people from giving him gifts.
Search hundreds of gifts accepted by Baca since 1998 and see who gave them.
"My life would be much easier if people did not give me gifts," he said. "I don't solicit any gifts. I've never asked for a gift.… People just do it for me."
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said they limit gifts from people vying for business from their departments to avoid conflicts of interest.
Hutchens, who once worked for Baca, said she's wary of accepting gifts from people she didn't know before taking office — and rules out taking anything from felons and individuals seeking work from her department.
"That's a very clear-cut one. Anyone doing business or seeking to do business, no way," she said. Hutchens said she worked out a system with the Irvine Co. so that when she attends the real estate company's events at private clubs where meals are free, they mail her a bill afterward.
"I try just to make it really clear: When I go out, I will pay for my own lunch or dinner," she said. "Sometimes they're a little taken aback.… You can't always go to everything if you're paying for yourself, but I think it's the right thing to do."
Since becoming sheriff, Baca has accepted 131 rounds of golf valued at more than $10,200 on his disclosure forms. He has taken tickets to 42 basketball games, concerts and other events totaling about $5,000, and accepted 22 bottles of wine and liquor he valued at more than $1,590.
He's gone on at least 20 free trips, often for meetings abroad, totaling about $65,000. In 2008, he took a seven-day trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, valued at almost $12,000 and paid for by the Saudi Foreign Intelligence Service, for a meeting on law enforcement issues.
Some of the sheriff's benefactors have received special attention from him.
Last year, Baca raised some eyebrows when he waded into the politics of city golf cart contracts, lobbying the Los Angeles City Council to stick with a firm that had had the deal for years.
"At first, I didn't get how he knew about golf carts," said Michael Bernback, the owner of a rival firm. Then Bernback realized the firm the sheriff supported was owned by the family of attorney Michael Yamaki, who lent Baca $20,000 during his initial run for sheriff and has picked up the tab for nine rounds of golf. Baca hired Yamaki as an advisor in 2005, and since then his salary has risen almost 50%, to more than $152,000.
Baca acknowledged that Yamaki asked him for help. But he said he wasn't performing a favor for a friend. "As a golf enthusiast, independently, I know enough about the subject," the sheriff said.
Baca said he wanted to prevent the city from signing a bad deal, claiming the rival contractor misrepresented how much his firm would make for the city. Bernback denied the allegation.
In fact, a city audit later concluded that the company owned by Yamaki's relative had underreported its proceeds and shorted the city thousands of dollars.