The L.A. County Sheriff's Department maintained a special hiring… (Andrew Renneisen, For The…)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca maintained a special hiring program that granted preferential treatment to the friends and relatives of department officials, including some candidates who were given jobs despite having troubled histories, according to interviews and internal employment records reviewed by The Times.
The program, known as "Friends of the Sheriff," has been in existence for at least eight years. Some high-ranking sheriff's officials injected themselves into the vetting process to lobby for favored job candidates, records show.
Among those hired was a man convicted of sexual battery, according to court records. His friend — and contact with the department — was Baca's driver. Another hired under the program was arrested last week on a federal weapons charge in connection with the FBI's corruption investigation in the sheriff's jails. His tie to the agency was his brother, a deputy.
Baca's nephew, Justin Bravo, became a deputy through the program in 2007, even after sheriff's investigators noted that he had allegedly been involved in theft and a fight with San Diego police and had been arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and burglary, The Times reported this year.
Bravo, who did not respond to a request for comment, is now the subject of a criminal investigation into allegations that he abused an inmate.
Sheriff's officials have repeatedly denied that their friends, relatives and associates were shown favoritism in the hiring process. The department's watchdog, who examined the little-known hiring track in 2009, found no evidence that applicants "routinely received preferential treatment."
When presented with The Times' findings last week about the department's hiring of well-connected recruits, Baca's spokesman acknowledged that applicants were given advantages over others competing for jobs.
"They're moved to the front of the line," spokesman Steve Whitmore said. "They do get fast-tracked … because they've got a tradition and history with the department." Nonetheless, he insisted that the applicants were held to the same hiring standards as other recruits.
A day after Whitmore's comments, sheriff's officials told The Times the special hiring program was being eliminated and a policy was being drafted to prohibit top brass from lobbying lower-level background investigators on behalf of job applicants.
"The sheriff doesn't believe it's appropriate anymore. He's also worried about the message.... There's going to be allegations we give favoritism," said Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, whose duties include overseeing personnel. "That argument could make some sense. I'll just leave it at that."
He said the department's own review found instances of well-connected applicants getting hired when they shouldn't have.
"I don't know if it was favoritism or incompetence or lack of due diligence," Rogers said.
The program marks the latest challenge for the nation's largest Sheriff's Department. Last week, 18 current and former deputies were charged by federal prosecutors in a jail abuse investigation. The Times reported this month that the department gave jobs to dozens of officers during a 2010 mass hiring even though sheriff's investigators found they had committed serious misconduct.
Baca, who is running for a fifth term, declined to be interviewed.
Whitmore said Baca knew vaguely about the separate hiring track but did not create it or operate it. Baca didn’t understand “all the ins and outs” of the program until the last few months, Whitmore added, and learned only this week that the program had been operating since 2005.
To handle all the applicants in the Friends of the Sheriff program, the department created a separate screening team and staffed it with veteran background investigators, officials said. The hope, they said, was that the experienced investigators would be able to resist any political pressure that department officials might try to exert on them.
Applicants were placed in the program after their department backer alerted the personnel division that one of their associates was applying. Candidates were put into the program after declaring they had a friend or relative in the department.
The records show that several candidates were listed as having Baca as their department connection.
Sheriff's officials said they did not know how many deputies had been given jobs through the Friends of the Sheriff program. The Times reviewed records showing that more than 270 applicants were screened through the program between 2005 and 2007.
The records listed the names of applicants and department officials they were connected with. Some applicants were not hired despite their connections. The Times also had access to background investigations for some of the applicants.