L.A. County, cities clash on deputy misconduct liability

A dispute over who should be held liable when an on-duty Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy commits serious misconduct is hampering contract negotiations between county officials and the leaders of the 40 cities that pay the sheriff to patrol their streets.

The disagreement stems from the case of former Deputy Gabriel Gonzalez, convicted in 2006 of raping three women while on duty in Compton and surrounding areas.

To settle claims brought by Gonzalez's victims, county supervisors paid out nearly $5.6 million in 2006 and 2008, tapping into a liability trust fund required under the cities' contracts.

But the association that represents those cities has disputed the use of those funds and appealed to the county to recoup the payout, arguing that it violated the terms of their contract.

Sam Olivito, executive director of the California Contract Cities Assn., said county counsel has refused to respond to that claim and has rewritten the cities' contract for the coming fiscal year to hold them permanently liable for costs associated with future deputy misconduct.

If the two sides do not reach agreement by June 30, Olivito said, the cities plan to sue the county. "They have a responsibility for the criminal behavior of their employees," he said.

William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, has been leading negotiations with the cities but declined to comment Wednesday, referring questions to county counsel. County counsel did not respond to repeated requests.

The county has been providing deputies to contract cities since 1954, Olivito said. Under the terms of their current contract, approved in 2004, cities pay the county $275 million, plus 6% toward a liability trust fund, which has grown to about $45 million, he said.

But Olivito said the trust fund was established based on risk assessments that did not include criminal liability. He said city leaders are concerned that large settlements could bankrupt the fund.

Frank Zerunyan, past president of the association and a City Council member in Rolling Hills Estates, said residents should not have to pay for the misdeeds of deputies whom the sheriff hires and fires.

"We have absolutely no control over these individuals and that's why it makes sense for them to handle the defense and also the payment of any potential judgments or settlements," Zerunyan said.

The debate has divided county leaders.

L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe, who chairs the board, "Is fully supportive of the cities' position," according to spokesman David Sommers.

"The cities are our No. 1 customer, and the contract cities plan has worked for the past 50 years," Sommers said.

But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the cities should be required to pay claims that arise out of deputy misconduct in their jurisdictions.

"That's what they buy when they buy our contract," Yaroslavsky said, adding that city leaders cannot "pick and choose which claims they pay."

A spokeswoman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he agreed that cities should be responsible for paying all liability claims. "They don't hire or fire the deputies when they pay out for excessive force or traffic collisions. The same applies across the board," said Anna Pembedjian, Antonovich's justice deputy.

Sheriff Lee Baca declined to comment through spokesman Steve Whitmore on Wednesday, who said the sheriff, "Understands both sides of the argument."

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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