Credit card caper is L.A. County’s next bombshell

As someone who makes a living reporting on the foibles of local newsmakers, there’s something I just don’t say often enough:

Thank you.

Thank you, Frank and Jamie McCourt, you quarreling crackpots, for hiring a Russian scientist to sit in his Boston home and send positive energy to the Dodgers 3,000 miles away. (And let me remind you, Jamie, that I’ve been sending positive vibes your way since you split with Frank. I stand ready — with my wife’s permission — to marry you, and I’m just as capable of blowing your money as the Russian guru.)

And thank you, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for freeloading at dozens of sports and entertainment events, including three Laker games. How is it down there at courtside? I think it’s good for the city for the mayor to be out on the town like that, but why didn’t you report the gifts? And, more important, why didn’t you invite me — not even once? Good luck with the investigation by the Ethics Commission.

Thank you, as well, to the Department of Water and Power employees who were caught drinking on the job and hanging out in strip joints while department officials were demanding rate hikes. You never disappoint me.

But my biggest thank you has to be to the $700-million, 6,000-member Los Angeles County Probation Department, where mayhem has reigned for years, with the county Board of Supervisors and other county officials unable to reform one of the most horribly managed departments in local government history.


Where to begin? I could start with the 170 cases of employee misconduct. Or with the sexual and physical abuse of juvenile wards. Or with the videos of inmate fights that ended up on the Internet. Or with the failure to fire employees for misconduct because the statute of limitations had passed. Or with the fact that department heads can’t tell you where all the employees even work.

But let me begin, instead, with a story you haven’t heard yet. I’m told the next bombshell will be the revelation that some employees appear to have been ripping off taxpayers by using county-issued credit cards for personal items, including LCD televisions, DVD players, Sony PlayStations and video games, and barbecue grills. Now maybe some of that loot will turn out to have been authorized, but I can tell you they’re having trouble finding the stuff at county offices.

The purchases were made at Best Buy, Sears and Home Depot, I’m told, and at times there were so-called split purchases, in which the shopper made separate buys, perhaps to avoid calling attention to any single large haul.

“I will tell you that when I looked at it, I was outraged,” L.A. County Chief Executive William Fujioka said of a preliminary report indicating more than 80 suspicious uses of credit cards. “I told my folks to immediately start working with the D.A. on it.”

He and other county officials told me they haven’t yet seen the full accounting of an investigation by the county auditor-controller, but they’ve seen enough to work up a good lather.

“I think the hammer will come down very hard,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was briefed on the credit card caper, said we’ve seen only “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to department malfeasance.

Can’t wait for the rest of it.

I do know that one curious item that came up in the auditor-controller report was an unexplained difference in food costs at various detention camps run by the Probation Department. With essentially the same menu, the tab at one camp came to $102 per juvenile monthly, and at another camp the figure was $210.

Unless the kids in the latter camp weigh twice as much, you have to wonder where all that extra food went.

Michael Gennaco of the county’s Office of Independent Review produced a scathing review of the mismanaged department earlier this month, and one of the most disturbing aspects of his report was the fact that employees who violated policy could not be disciplined.

Why not?

Because the employees have a state-mandated statute of limitations, so if a case isn’t wrapped up in two years, they’re home free. And the investigations unit is so overmatched and ill-equipped, it doesn’t always get the job done in time.

“You could ask investigations right now how many cases they’ve got going on and they would scratch their heads and not give an answer. They don’t have a tracking system that makes any sense,” Gennaco said.

In defense of the internal affairs unit, he said, “You would be amazed at the facility they have to work with. It’s unsecured, in a shed, with no cellphones, no windows. They end up having people interviewed in a Denny’s about very private matters — about sexual abuse on minors.”

Finally, this year, the county hired two outsiders to run the department and there’s some hope that the worst days are over. But this is the Probation Department, and this is L.A. County, with its history of inertia against reform.

In 2006, I wrote about how Yaroslavsky was trying to bring in a former Justice Department official known for reforming long-troubled departments. He wanted him to come up with a plan for reforming ours. But those efforts collapsed when Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and Supervisor Mike Antonovich, among others, questioned the toughness of the guy Yaroslavsky had lined up. They seemed to think everything was under control.

Nice work, boys.