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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Compton claims L.A. County sheriff charging for ‘ghost cars’

The city of Compton accused the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department of “rampant” fraud on Wednesday, claiming the agency routinely charges for patrol work that is not done.

The allegations were made in a legal claim filed with the county, which is a precursor to a lawsuit. In it, Compton attorneys said the alleged deception has led to “major understaffing” and “a lack of responsiveness” to calls for service in the city. Compton pays the Sheriff’s Department more than $22 million a year to police the city and in exchange sheriff’s deputies are obligated to spend a certain amount of time each month patrolling Compton’s streets.

“What is happening is fraudulent billing,” said Jamon Hicks, an attorney representing the city. “What that means is that we have deputies that are saying they’re at locations that they’re not at. That we have deputies that are saying they’re patrolling the streets of the residents when they are not.”

The fraud allegations surfaced earlier this year when a lawyer representing an anonymous deputy assigned to the Sheriff’s Compton station contacted city officials.

“Taxpayers are footing the bill for law enforcement services and they’re expecting those services to be provided,” Compton City Atty. Damon Brown said Wednesday. “For the Sheriff’s Department to be defrauding them of those dollars and essentially to steal money right out of the city coffers, that can’t go unaddressed.”

A sheriff’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but said after the whistleblower’s claims first came to light that “an inquiry is being conducted” into the allegations.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a news conference Wednesday that the department is conducting a thorough audit.

“We measure the minutes… we have to get close to the 100%, either slightly above, slightly below. If we’re missing that target, I don’t think it’s going be the grand conspiracy that the outgoing mayor of Compton wants it to be,” he said, referencing Mayor Aja Brown, whose term is up next month. “To call it a fraud, that might be a little bit of a stretch.”

The Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement services to 42 cities in L.A. County, all of which negotiate five-year agreements. The $22 million Compton pays each year makes it one of the sheriff’s largest clients.

Inspector General Max Huntsman, an independent watchdog over the Sheriff’s Department, has said similar claims of falsified patrol records have been made against the department before. The allegations center on the use of so-called “ghost cars,” in which sheriff’s officials allegedly falsely record “patrol minutes worked by cars that are not actually in the field.”

On Wednesday, he said the Sheriff’s Department has refused to produce records to his investigators for inspection.

The Sheriff’s Department “assures [us] they are investigating themselves, but since they have chosen to obstruct our investigation and not permitted us to monitor theirs, we cannot vouch for the integrity of their practices,” he said.

The Compton allegations could explain why residents have been complaining about problems, like drag racing or illegal fireworks, that have continued unabated, Brown said. When the city asked the Sheriff’s Department for help closing down illegal marijuana dispensaries, he said, officials were presented with a proposal for a special assignment team for an additional price.

“We can’t afford to continue to pay more and not see any results,” he said in March.

Marcel Rodarte, the executive director of the California Contract Cities Assn., said the Sheriff’s Department has indicated it is investigating and would provide refunds if it determined that cities were overcharged.

“That’s at a minimum the recourse that we would ask for,” he said.

Alan Romero, the whistleblower’s attorney, laid out how the alleged deception may have been orchestrated in letters to the city.

He said that three deputies assigned to desk jobs at the Compton station are believed to have logged patrol minutes while performing their office duties, and detectives at the station were also “logging on using City minutes to do non-crime suppression work and not responding to calls as required by contract.” He claimed dispatchers are aware of the deception and purposefully don’t send these detectives out on calls for service.

Romero also pointed to a program called the Cadre of Administrative Reserve Personnel that is meant to be used to shift deputies on special assignments to patrol as a way to alleviate staffing shortages.

“Ostensibly, ‘CARPing’ personnel participate in patrol duties, but in practice they rarely do, resulting in dangerously low staffing levels and deputies on patrol who are both overworked and overwhelmed,” Romero said in a March letter.

The Times in March requested daily unit logs and patrol rosters in an attempt to determine whether the Sheriff’s Department was shortchanging Compton on its patrol minutes. Sheriff’s officials, however, refused to turn over records, calling the request “overly burdensome.”

Romero alleged that the fraud is happening in other cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department. “Other stations generally engage in minutes fraud near the end of the month in order to exhaust unused city minutes by placing non-existent “ghost cars” in the file,” he wrote.

In an interview, a sheriff’s deputy told The Times that while working at the West Hollywood station, he was asked to fabricate records to show a deputy who was stuck at home because of an injury was out in a patrol car to “burn” minutes.

“I refused,” said the deputy, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “That’s straight up fraud. It’s so rampant that it became the norm.”

He added, “At the end of the day, we know it’s stealing and I’m not a thief.”

After that, while on patrol, the deputy said he noticed a handful of times when the station’s computer system showed deputies being on patrol whom he knew were not.

West Hollywood, which has contracted with the Sheriff’s Department since the city was incorporated in 1984, pays the agency roughly $20 million a year for law enforcement services.

The Los Angeles Police Department in 2014 was found to have employed a similar ghost car scheme, falsifying records to make it appear that officers were patrolling city streets when they were not and that divisions were meeting the deployment requirements.

The LAPD’s inspector general found that the deception occurred in at least five of the department’s 21 patrol divisions. Officers working desk jobs, handing out equipment in stations or performing other duties were logged into squad car computers to make it appear they were on patrol.

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