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Supporter of Sheriff Baca got personal county car

A volunteer deputy who threw a fundraiser for L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was assigned a county car, which even most full-time deputies don't receive. Other volunteers might also have had such vehicles.

March 04, 2012|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Sheriff Lee Baca recalled the cars issued to reserves, according to a spokesman.
Sheriff Lee Baca recalled the cars issued to reserves, according to a spokesman. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

For months, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Phillip Hansen heard the grumblings: Deep-pocketed donors and other well-connected individuals working as reserve deputies were driving around in unmarked Sheriff's Department cars. One reserve, a restaurant owner who threw a fundraiser for Sheriff Lee Baca, was frequently seen parking a county-owned Ford Crown Victoria outside his La Mirada restaurant, a popular hangout for deputies.

Hansen, who heads the volunteer deputy program, was troubled by the reports and asked for an accounting of which reserves had take-home cars.

He was stunned by the response.

"I basically got nicely told I really wasn't authorized to have that information," Hansen recalled.

It turns out at least one reserve — the Baca fundraiser — was assigned a county car. A sheriff's spokesman conceded that other reserves may have had vehicles as well, but he declined to provide a detailed accounting of how many received such a perk.

Last year, the Sheriff's Department refused to comply with a public records request from The Times regarding take-home county car use and gas consumption by four reserves who have given Baca political support or gifts. The department declined to even confirm the men were reserves, despite all four being named on department websites or other public listings.

When reached by phone last month, one of the four men, Chris Vovos, refused to answer questions about whether he had a take-home car, hanging up twice. "You're asking me for information I don't give my own father," he said.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore did not confirm that Vovos was assigned a car until The Times presented the department with evidence. Whitmore declined to say how many reserves had cars, but added that "being a donor to the sheriff has nothing to do with getting a car or not."

After The Times' inquiries, Whitmore said, Baca recalled any county vehicles assigned out to reserves and planned to draft a policy to prevent it from happening again.

The department's reserves, who are paid a dollar a year, generally work under the supervision of full-time sworn deputies. Common tasks include administrative work and parking enforcement, though some highly trained volunteers are allowed to make on-duty arrests and work in specialized units.

Hansen and others say they can't imagine under what circumstances reserves would need personally assigned county cars, given that most full-time sheriff's deputies and many department supervisors don't get the perk.

"There's undoubtedly staff out there who could use a county car, but we can't afford to give it to them," Hansen said, alluding to major cuts in the department's budget in recent years. "I could find you hundreds of them."

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who specializes in police ethics and training, said the practice is a questionable use of county funds and could hurt morale.

"I have never seen a department that allocates vehicles to reserves before they take care of their sworn full-time officers. That's unheard of," Haberfeld said. "This is not an operationally sound procedure. On the contrary, this is very bizarre and doesn't sound ethical."

The sheriff's reserve program has for years faced criticism of mismanagement and special treatment. In 2010, a state agency discovered that the program gave badges to volunteers who flunked mandatory law enforcement tests and attended classes at unauthorized locations, including a Four Seasons hotel, 20th Century Fox Studios and possibly a yacht. Among the 99 reserves who were either stripped of their badges or demoted as a result were contributors, businesspeople, at least one celebrity — and Vovos.

In several cases, officials discovered that some course material and attendance records had been fabricated. One trainee apparently passed a firearms test despite missing the target completely.

Hansen said he was brought in about two years ago to clean up the reserves program. After he was contacted multiple times by peers and subordinates who believed reserves were getting their own cars, he said, he felt obligated to act. Car assignments are not up to him, but rather unit commanders across the department.

Hansen said he was worried that cars being personally assigned to influential reserves would be another public embarrassment for a program staffed by more than 800 volunteers — one of whom, Shervin Lalezary, was recently lauded as a hero after ending a massive countywide manhunt by arresting an arson suspect accused of setting more than 50 fires.

"I hate to see the very good work of 800 or so like Shervin be overshadowed by the excesses of very few," Hansen said.

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