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L.A. County sheriff's officials may have overpaid for work, equipment

An internal report finds that Aero Bureau supervisors allowed a Carlsbad firm to bill for unjustified expenses while working on a fleet of helicopters. The department also bought equipment it didn't need from the firm.

March 27, 2012|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Aero Bureau supervisors, a report states, allowed a firm to bill for unjustified expenses while outfitting a fleet of helicopters.
Aero Bureau supervisors, a report states, allowed a firm to bill for unjustified… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials overpaid a private contractor nearly $11 million for work that wasn't needed and aircraft equipment they already had, according to allegations in a sheriff's memo obtained by The Times.

The internal report recommended that supervisors within the emergency air support division be investigated for potential conflicts of interest and violations of county purchasing rules. Aero Bureau supervisors, the report states, allowed the Carlsbad avionics firm, Hangar One, to bill for unjustified expenses while outfitting a fleet of helicopters.

Sheriff's officials paid the firm for 3,888 hours of installation work for each aircraft. Compared with the industry standard, the internal memo states, that's eight times more man-hours than needed.

"This per aircraft amount cannot be justified," sheriff's Sgt. Richard Gurr wrote in the report, calling the charges "extremely excessive."

In other instances, Aero Bureau officials purchased special equipment from the firm despite already having a well-stocked inventory. The department spent almost $500,000, for example, on 42 night-vision goggles when the dozen they already had were "sufficient to support any LASD mission." On another occasion, they picked up 20 sets of water safety gear when none were needed.

The division made six-figure purchases without the required approval of the Board of Supervisors. "They have purposely bypassed the established purchasing code protocols," the memo states. "LASD Aero Bureau managers have potentially violated numerous L.A. County Codes and Guidelines."

The memo echoes allegations made by a former lieutenant within the air division, reported earlier this month by The Times. Retired Lt. Edison Cook sued the department, alleging bid rigging and intentional delays to calls for emergency air support to justify more overtime pay.

Sheriff's officials have said allegations of impropriety within the Aero Bureau are being investigated. The department had previously probed allegations of improper relationships with contractors but found no wrongdoing. Nonetheless, sheriff's officials sent their findings to the district attorney for review. Additionally, the county's auditor-controller looked into the alleged financial irregularities and found no problems, according to sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

An attorney defending the county against Cook's lawsuit said the retired lieutenant was "a disgruntled former employee" whose allegations were "meritless, based on gossip and innuendo."

However, Gurr's memo and other internal documents reviewed by The Times show Cook's concerns were shared by others.

One internal memo, by Sgt. Paul Hanley, warns the division's captain, Louis Duran, that time sheets may have been manipulated. In one case, a deputy was listed for a special day shift, despite reports from other employees "that he was never there."

In another instance, a supervisor was listed as working a fill-in shift, but Hanley states, "I was told that he was not seen all day." Two other deputies were listed as manning a particular aircraft, Air 8, during one shift, even though a separate log of missed calls for service during that time period showed "that several calls were unanswered … because there was no Air 8."

During the period of the alleged manipulation, Sheriff Lee Baca was regularly warning the Board of Supervisors, which controls his budget, about the negative consequences of funding cuts, often including a detailed accounting of calls for service that the Aero Bureau had to miss.

Other issues raised in Gurr's memo include:

•The purchase of a searchlight for almost $43,000, about $15,000 more than what police elsewhere had paid.

•More than $1.7 million paid for "extras" that "were not installed in the helicopters" and may have not had proper approval.

•The bidding process "appears to have been manipulated" to include requirements so narrow that only Hangar One would qualify, despite far more experienced firms being available for the work.

A call to the Hangar One office went unanswered.

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