Advertisement

Rampart Scandal’s Cost to County Rising Fast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rampart scandal’s cost to Los Angeles County government has nearly doubled over the past two months, and officials now say they will need 25 cents out of every new dollar available to the county for next year--money that otherwise could go to chronically underfunded areas such as public hospitals or child-abuse investigations.

Moreover, the Rampart-related $11.4-million price tag is expected to grow, as additional allegations of corruption are unearthed in other Los Angeles police divisions.

The county’s growing Rampart bill demonstrates how the effects of the worst police scandal in Los Angeles city history are sprawling well beyond, not only City Hall, but also the Los Angeles city limits. County officials have repeatedly said Rampart is a city problem, but now they are finding their bank accounts increasingly pinched by it.

“These are real dollars and their [diversion] is going to have a severe impact on ensuring that vital services are provided to our citizens,” said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, most of whose district is outside the city of Los Angeles.

Advertisement

The legal departments of the county--the offices of the district attorney, public defender and alternate public defender--now are estimating they will need $11.4 million to investigate the scandal and review cases in which people may have been wrongfully convicted, officials say.

In March, those three departments pegged their Rampart-related costs at $6.5 million, warning that the figures might increase.

They have.

“We can see very clearly that the number of cases we will be required to review has expanded exponentially,” Public Defender Michael Judge said, citing cases now dating to 1991 and involving officers at six of the LAPD’s 18 divisions.

Advertisement

Attorneys in all three county offices have been pulled from regular assignments to deal with the scandal, and Judge, Alternate Public Defender Bruce Hoffman and Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti are all seeking funds from the county to replace those lawyers’ salaries in next year’s budget, allowing resumption of the work they would have been doing.

The proposed budget, which was unveiled by county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen last month, contained no increases for Rampart, but that was mainly because the costs of the scandal were expected to grow, Janssen said.

He said that county reserves should be able to absorb many of the costs, as may surplus funds available to the district attorney’s office now that the state has moved to transfer the office’s child-support operations.

The Rampart expenses still constitute a fraction of the county’s $15-billion budget. But in the county’s preliminary budget, Janssen had allocated $48 million extra that the booming economy has pumped into the coffers to shore up crumbling buildings and into long-neglected public services. Now, if supervisors agree to cover the $11.4 million in Rampart expenses, the county will either have to redistribute one-fourth of that extra money or find money that otherwise would have gone to the Sheriff’s Department, child-abuse investigators, public hospitals or other needs that, through many lean years, have gone unmet among the county’s 37 agencies.

Supervisors will decide whether to reimburse some of the legal agencies for their Rampart costs when they finalize their budget in June. Contracts with private attorneys representing indigent defendants are automatically hiked to compensate for public defenders and alternate public defenders who have been pulled from their caseload to investigate Rampart, Janssen said.

The county has been hoping to avoid paying any damages in the Rampart scandal, in which LAPD officers allegedly beat and framed dozens of people, some of whom pleaded guilty because they feared their accounts of police corruption would not be taken seriously.

Though many of the 99 people so far identified as wrongfully convicted are expected to name county officials as well as city officials in their suits because they were prosecuted by the county district attorney’s office, county lawyers are arguing that prosecutors enjoy immunity from civil liability.

The city’s anticipated liability was pegged at $125 million earlier this year, when the scandal was still in its infancy, and more than one-quarter the city’s new funds are designated for Rampart costs in Mayor Richard Riordan’s new budget.

Advertisement

The district attorney’s office has put its Rampart costs at $4.3 million to operate a squad investigating the scandal, which officials expect to grow to 40 people by the time the county’s new fiscal year begins July 1.

“Our best estimate at the present time is that’s what it’s going to cost,” said budget director David Guthman, who had cautioned two months ago that the office’s $3 million estimate would grow. Of the latest number, he said, “If it’s going to change it’d go up, not down.”

The public defender’s office says it is spending $4.4 million on the scandal for a unit of investigators and 20 attorneys, as opposed to the $2.5 million it reported in March. That unit is also taxed by a battle with the district attorney’s office over allegedly illegal wiretapping, which Public Defender Judge said is also eating up staffing and overtime.

Finally, the alternate public defender’s office--which represents indigent defendants when the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest--is asking for $2.8 million to fund its Rampart unit, up from $1 million in March.

If the departments get funding for their Rampart units, supervisors have asked what the money will be spent on when the scandal eventually dwindles. Guthman of the district attorney’s office said the number of new attorneys the money would fund is less than the agency’s annual turnover and the sums could be absorbed through attrition.

In response to questioning at a budget hearing Wednesday, Alternate Public Defender Hoffman said he expects Rampart “to take several years.”

And after that is done, Hoffman said, his office will need extra lawyers to deal with increased prosecutions of juveniles as adults subject to the death penalty as authorized by Proposition 21, passed by the voters in March.


Advertisement