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Counties Assailed Over Paid Time Off

Times Staff Writer

California counties pay millions of dollars in wages each year to employees who are not allowed to work because of disciplinary investigations -- a practice that some officials criticize in light of the state’s budget crisis.

Workers in six large counties for which data were available -- Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, Sacramento and Santa Clara -- were paid more than $27.2 million while suspended from work over the last five years, according to a Times analysis.

In Los Angeles County alone, workers collected $16.6 million over five years while serving what the county calls “ordered absence leave,” records show.

A majority of the paid time off went to law enforcement officers. In Los Angeles, 58% of the $5.5 million the county paid to relieved employees last year went to workers in the sheriff or probation departments or district attorney’s office. In Sacramento, 70% of the on-leave wages went to law enforcement employees; in Orange County, 63%.

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Several law enforcement officials said they continue to pay workers they suspect of wrongdoing because of the so-called Peace Officers Bill of Rights of 1976. That law provides a series of employment protections for the state’s peace officers and prohibits law enforcement agencies from disciplining or firing officers without providing them due process hearings.

Others say it is financially prudent to offer paid leave rather than withhold wages and face lawsuits or large disbursements for back pay if employees are cleared to return to work.

“If we don’t [pay officers on leave] and the guy gets his job back, it’s all subject to paying him back again, and counties hate to pay that big fat paycheck,” said Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Capt. Pete Rode. “It’s sometimes easier and less costly for the county to pay that administrative leave than incur additional liability if it turns out we were wrong.”

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Guilt Undecided

Orange County attorney John Barnett, who frequently represents police officers accused of misconduct, said paid administrative leave is justified “because there hasn’t been a determination of guilt or innocence.”

“Just because you’re accused of something, I don’t think it should financially decimate you or your family,” said Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. “There are good reasons to put people on administrative leave. Depending on the allegation, there’s liability concerns for the department and the officer. Is he going to be able to concentrate on his law enforcement job when he has this allegation pending? If the allegation is true, would you want this guy working at your department? I don’t think any of us would.”

Still, some critics say paid suspensions often last far longer than necessary.

The Los Angeles County Probation Department suspended 88 workers with pay in 2002, keeping them on ordered-absence leave for an average of nearly six months each -- a cost of $1.89 million to taxpayers, according to county records. The Sheriff’s Department paid employees on leave more than $1.2 million, the records show.

Susan Stern, chief deputy of Los Angeles County’s human resources department, said there is no countywide policy on how departments should use ordered-absence leave or how long an employee can be paid while home from work. She said the cost figures the county provided to The Times could include employees who were reassigned to other jobs rather than sent home, but she could not say how many.

In other California counties, some law enforcement officers are paid to stay off the job even while awaiting trial on serious charges.

An investigator for the Riverside County district attorney’s office was kept on the payroll for eight months while charged with murder, collecting more than $51,000, records show. Investigator Daniel Riter, 56, retired in the middle of his trial this summer and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

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In Santa Clara County, a sheriff’s deputy was suspended with pay for a year, collecting more than $65,000, after he was accused of sexually assaulting a volunteer firefighter during a wildfire in 2000. He was convicted of misdemeanor sexual battery and dismissed from the department after the trial.

“That’s outrageous, and a prime example of how the public sector is not held to the same competitive pressures as the private sector,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “If they’re receiving taxpayer funds, they should be doing something productive for the taxpayers.”

An official in the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department said the case involving former Deputy Glenn Dolfin was extremely unusual.

“It’s almost a gift of public funds for bad behavior,” said Capt. Rode. “If we have the information, we will make the decision [to discipline] even before the criminal case goes all the way to trial.”

San Diego County officials also use paid leave sparingly, records show. The county paid $170,837 to suspended employees in the 2001-02 fiscal year, the lowest amount among the counties surveyed by The Times.

San Diego County Assistant Sheriff Lynne Pierce, who oversees the agency’s human resources division, said the department frequently reassigns deputies accused of wrongdoing -- even criminal wrongdoing -- to desk jobs. San Diego County sheriff’s employees spent the least amount of time on paid leave of any of the counties surveyed.

“We know these cases take a long time to investigate and we don’t want someone, quite frankly, to be paid for sitting at home,” Pierce said. “It’s that [idea of a] gift of public funds that drives us. If someone is at home and being paid, that is, in effect, a gift of public funds. We’re very careful not to do that.”

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County Seeks Audit

Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell grew so concerned about the use of paid administrative leave in his county -- it exceeded $1.1 million in the 2001-02 fiscal year -- that he called for an audit. The county human resources department now provides board members with quarterly reports listing employees who have been on paid leave more than two weeks.

Campbell said he’s impressed with the way San Diego County has been able to reduce its use of paid leave. “If we can find a way to utilize [employees] and still protect the public, that’s just good policy all the way around,” he said.

“Part of my frustration has been the poor employee sitting at home, not knowing what their situation is,” he said. “Nobody likes to sit at home just doing nothing.”

Law enforcement officials say state law makes it difficult to discipline peace officers. Departments often are willing to wait for an employee’s criminal trial to conclude before imposing discipline because a conviction cleanly closes their case and because they do not want to interfere with a criminal prosecution.

Still, Riverside County officials’ decision to pay suspended district attorney investigator Riter while he awaited a murder trial for an on-duty shooting baffled relatives of the victim in the case. Riter shot and killed an Indio man who disobeyed his order to stop a pickup truck.

The investigator spent eight months on medical leave and another eight months on administrative leave, collecting $102,000 while off the job. He retired in the middle of his trial and was convicted in July of involuntary manslaughter.

“We’re obviously appalled,” said Juan Carlos Herrera, brother of the victim, Jesus Pena “Jesse” Herrera. “Once he was found guilty, he should have to pay the money back. As a taxpayer, I’m not in favor of having my money fund someone who committed a crime, especially a crime of this level. He took another person’s life.”

Michael J. Curfman, chief of the Riverside County district attorney’s investigations unit, said the decision to pay Riter was reasonable.

Riter alleged that he was acting in self-defense, and the department decided to await the outcome of the trial before taking action.

Still, the county had not acted to discipline Riter -- and was still paying his salary -- even after deciding to pay $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Herrera’s mother.

Curfman said he did not think it would have been wise to suspend Riter without pay. “If you do that and it works out the other way [with an acquittal], then you have back pay. And if you’ve violated any of his rights, those things come back at you with lawsuits,” he said.

Paid leave is primarily used with employees suspected of wrongdoing, but it is also used in many counties for medical or psychological reasons. Many sheriff’s departments, for example, put deputies on paid administrative leave for a few days when they are involved in a shooting.

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Pay Loss Called Unfair

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Chief Bill McSweeney, who oversees the department’s training and internal affairs, said that the department has a responsibility to relieve deputies facing serious allegations, and that it would be unfair to take them off the payroll until a thorough investigation was conducted.

Whenever possible, he said, the department will place deputies in desk jobs or other assignments in which they cannot pose a threat to the public or co-workers. Still, it’s not always good policy to try to make use of workers accused of misconduct, he said.

“We play it fairly safe. If we think someone could be a danger in the workplace, we’ll leave them home,” he said. “If you took more risks, you could cut this some. I just wouldn’t feel good about cutting the numbers by increasing the risk.”

In one instance, a public official was accused of using administrative leave to punish disloyal employees at public expense.

One supervisor in San Bernardino County said he is so concerned about the numbers in his county -- more than $500,000 was paid to suspended workers in the last fiscal year -- that he plans to introduce policy changes that would encourage the county to reassign workers suspected of wrongdoing rather than pay them to stay home.

“We need to be more diligent in judiciously concluding investigations,” said San Bernardino County Supervisor Fred Aguiar. “If you have an employee who committed wrong, you don’t need to reward them with continued paid leave. It’s not fair to taxpayers, and it’s not fair to the employees who are picking up the slack for the employees who did something bad.”


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