L.A. County Sheriff's Department examines whether calls for aircraft to respond went unanswered so it would look like funding cuts were threatening public safety. Wasteful spending is also alleged.
By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
March 17, 2012
Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators are probing allegations that supervisors from the department's Aero division purposely delayed responding to calls for emergency air support.
At least one former Aero Bureau supervisor has publicly made accusations of impropriety. In a lawsuit filed against the county, Lt. Edison Cook said deputies were instructed by their supervisors to "slow down on service calls in order to miss calls for service." One sheriff's supervisor, Cook said, instructed other supervisors to complete their quota of required special shifts during the day, not the night, when most calls for service go out.
On one occasion, the three-decade veteran said, he drew criticism from his captain when, during one shift, he assigned an aircraft to a deputy without one: "We don't want to field too many ships because then it would look like we could get along without overtime."
During the period of the alleged manipulation, Sheriff Lee Baca was regularly alerting the Board of Supervisors, which controls his budget, to the negative consequences of funding cuts, often including a detailed accounting of calls for service that the Aero Bureau had to miss.
In his lawsuit, Cook quotes a 2010 email from an Aero Bureau sergeant: "If we go short and calls are missed we need to record the missed calls and provide our executives with the proper records so they can fight the fight."
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the allegations of misconduct are being thoroughly investigated.
He also said the department has completed a separate internal criminal investigation into allegations that Aero Bureau officials had improper relationships with contractors. Whitmore said that probe found no wrongdoing, though the results won't be presented to prosecutors until next week.
"When all is said and done," he said, "we are confident that the department will be cleared of any wrongdoing."
Elizabeth M. Kessel, an attorney representing the county in the lawsuit, described Cook in a statement as "a disgruntled former employee. This litigation will show that his allegations are meritless, based on gossip and innuendo."
Cook said he began noticing problems soon after he was transferred from his post as a unit commander on Catalina Island to the Aero Bureau in 2009.
His lawsuit alleges that in May 2010 he learned that some deputies and sergeants were getting more overtime than others.
Cook, now retired, also alleges that division supervisors were making use of the department's air fleet when commercial flights would have been significantly cheaper. One county aircraft, he said, "was used as the personal aircraft" by some officials when attending out-of-state meetings.
In his lawsuit, he claims he took his concerns about the wasteful spending to his chief, telling him "the department will have problems if the Los Angeles Times found out."
Cook also alleged that the Board of Supervisors was misled into believing that a project to outfit helicopters would cost $12 million more than needed. He said sheriff's officials also made a contract so narrow in scope that only one avionics company could compete.
He claims he was retaliated against as a result of his complaints, and eventually received a "punitive transfer" out of Aero Bureau to a post at a sheriff's jail.
Whitmore confirmed that department investigators are probing allegations that Aero Bureau officials improperly used county aircraft.
The accusation of financial irregularities in business with contractors was referred to the county auditor, which he said found no impropriety, Whitmore added. He quoted the audit, which was not provided to The Times, stating that the dealings "followed county standards for competitive solicitation."