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Sheriff's special hiring program favored friends and relatives

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeLaw EnforcementSexual AssaultLee BacaLos Angeles Police DepartmentFBI

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.

Victoria Havassy, an outside psychologist who contracted with the county to help screen sheriff's job applicants, said she knew she was expected to treat an applicant differently when she saw a hiring file with a sticky note and the letters "FOS," for Friend of the Sheriff, written on it.

"We were supposed to consider that," she told The Times. "And I did."

Among other things, Havassy said she signed off on "Friend of the Sheriff" applicants with problematic work histories and behavior problems that would have gotten other job candidates rejected. Still, she said she refused to green-light applicants with more serious problems.

She said that soon after being told to lower her overall disqualification rate, which she did, she nonetheless was notified that the department would no longer be using her services. Havassy said she reached out to Baca for a meeting but received a phone call from his then-second-in-command, Larry Waldie, instead.

According to Havassy, Waldie told her: "Victoria, it's not always the numbers. It's who you disqualify."

The hiring records showed Undersheriff Waldie's involvement in the process. In one case, an applicant was noted as being disqualified over "falsification/illegal sex" issues. The man was "hired per U/S Waldie," the records state.

Waldie did not respond to a request for comment.

When 40-year-old David Chi applied for a job, his connection in the department was sheriff's Cmdr. Lynda Castro, internal records show. He was hired after failing to disclose being arrested years earlier by the Sheriff's Department on an outstanding warrant for suspicion of felony possession of a machine gun.

When confronted by a background investigator, Chi denied being arrested. "The applicant … informed me that it must be a mistake on the paperwork.... The applicant assured me that he had no recollection of ever being arrested on this warrant," the investigator noted in the hiring file.

After the background investigator located the arrest records, "the applicant admitted that indeed it was him and that he did not mention it during his background because he was embarrassed." Chi explained that he did community service after the arrest and got the case "dropped," so he felt he was not required to mention it, the records show. The Times found no records detailing the disposition of the case.

The department's hiring file shows that Castro personally met with a hiring lieutenant to advocate for Chi.

The commander "assured the Lieutenant that the applicant's failure to disclose his 1994 arrest was without malice and only due to the fact that he thought 'expunged' records were completely erased. She further stated that she has personal knowledge of the applicant's integrity and that he will be an asset to the Sheriff's Department," the records state.

Chi, who works as a deputy, did not return calls and an email seeking comment. Castro, who has since retired, could not be reached for comment.

Another applicant, Edward Gonsalves, got into the Friends of the Sheriff program through Eli Vera, a former sergeant who had the coveted assignment of being Baca's driver. Hiring records show that the Los Angeles Police Department rejected Gonsalves after investigators discovered he had been arrested in 1994 while he was a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Gonsalves was charged with felony rape of an unconscious person, court records show. He pleaded "no contest" to a lesser charge of misdemeanor sexual battery and was sentenced to a day in jail and three years' informal probation. In 1998, his request to have the case expunged was granted, the records show.

According to his account of the incident, which is documented in the hiring file, Gonsalves said he had met a woman at a party and the two ended up kissing and fondling one another. At some point, he said, he realized that she began to pass out because she had consumed too much alcohol. He said he had her friends take her home.

The next day, he said he called her friends to check on her, and they told him that she had gone to the hospital and that the police wanted to speak with him.

He told background investigators that he regretted not fighting the charge. He said his lawyer told him it would be expensive to go to trial.

Gonsalves was hired as a deputy. He could not be reached for comment.

Vera, now a station captain, would not comment on how he knew Gonsalves but described him as "an individual of pretty incredible character." Asked about the fact that the LAPD had rejected Gonsalves over the sexual battery incident, Vera said ,"That specific information I didn't know about."

"All I know about that young man," Vera said, "is he's the kind of person you want patrolling the streets."

Baca's spokesman had a different view on hiring an applicant with such a conviction on his record.

"It's obviously not right," Whitmore said. "It's obviously wrong."

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ben Poston contributed to this report.

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