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Probe of L.A. animal services agency widens

What began as an inquiry into possible dog theft at a shelter now includes a look into whether more than 10 department employees were paid for work they didn't perform.

July 14, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Two poodle mixes at the Lincoln Heights shelter are shown in a 2008 photograph. An investigation into possible dog theft at the shelter has grown. Los Angeles officials are now looking into whether nearly a dozen public employees filled out time cards fraudulently.
Two poodle mixes at the Lincoln Heights shelter are shown in a 2008 photograph.… (Los Angeles Times )

An investigation into possible dog theft at a Lincoln Heights animal shelter has expanded substantially, with Los Angeles officials now trying to determine whether public employees were paid for work they did not perform.

More than 10 city workers at the animal services department are under review as personnel investigators try to figure out if their time cards were filled out fraudulently, said Bill Carter, chief deputy for City. Atty. Carmen Trutanich.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said city officials are looking into "a range of personnel issues that could include theft and fraud." Meanwhile, Maggie Whelan, the head of the Personnel Department, said at least eight human resources investigators are now involved in the inquiry.

The time-card cheating probe comes at a time when the animal agency, which runs six shelters and has more than 300 employees, is strapped for funds. A new San Fernando Valley shelter built with voter-approved bond money has remained shuttered because of a lack of staff.

In May, animal services General Manager Brenda Barnette disclosed that her agency is trying to find out if employees stole animals and sold them for a profit. Barnette, who was hired last year, said officials previously in charge of the department "had not been doing the work" of properly managing the agency.

"Right now we have the support of a mayor to do a robust and aggressive investigation, and that's what we're doing," she said.

The investigation comes at a time when city officials are responding to allegations of wrongdoing at three other agencies. At the Department of Building and Safety, the FBI conducted an elaborate undercover sting operation into bribe-taking. Four workers have been fired since that sting began.

The FBI is also investigating allegations of overbilling at the Housing Department, where an affordable-housing developer has been accused of fraudulently billing tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the district attorney's Public Integrity Division is scrutinizing expenses incurred by some members of the Housing Authority board.

Animal services officials believe that 39 animals, most of them dogs, have disappeared from the North Central Shelter on Lacy Street over a year, a rate much higher than at other animal services facilities. Those were typically the youngest and the cutest ones — and most likely to be adopted, Barnette said.

Some workers have been reassigned to other facilities in the wake of the investigation. Meanwhile, city officials have struggled to keep running the shelters at a time of budget cuts.

Budget officials unveiled a proposal earlier this year to retain a nonprofit group to operate the recently built Northeast Valley Animal Shelter and Care Center in Mission Hills, which never opened to the public. The facility is used to house animals that are evidence in abuse cases.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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