Sheriff’s Dept. reverses stance, reveals data on county car use

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department improperly concealed the identities of at least two reserve deputies who are political supporters of Sheriff Lee Baca and were given access to county cars.

The Sheriff’s Department denied a public records request last year from The Times regarding take-home county car use and gasoline consumption by four reserves who have given Baca political support or gifts. The department declined to even confirm that the men were reserves, citing “the confidential nature of some assignments.” All four, however, are named as sheriff’s reserves on department websites or other public listings.

After being called before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to address the issue, Baca made an about-face, presenting a report that detailed the use of county cars by two of the reserves whose identities his department had previously concealed.

One of the men, Chris Vovos, the sheriff explained, was using a car assigned to the Major Crimes Division, even though he wasn’t doing work for the unit, and therefore, it was incorrectly assumed that his work was too sensitive for disclosure. Baca did not describe why his department initially refused to turn over information about the second reserve, Chester Chong, whose vehicle was assigned to Headquarters Bureau, which would not inherently indicate sensitive work.

The department contends the identities of the other two reserves should continue to remain secret because they hold sensitive narcotics positions.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the withholding of public records relating to two of the reserves and their county car use from the newspaper was inadvertent. He added that gifts and donations to Baca do not result in special treatment.

The department’s reserves, who are paid a dollar a year, generally work under the supervision of full-time deputies. Tasks include administrative work and the transporting of evidence, though some volunteers make on-duty arrests and work in specialized units.

Last month, after The Times reported on concerns within the department about reserves who are donors getting county cars — a perk most full-time deputies don’t enjoy — sheriff’s officials said they launched an audit.

Among the findings were that two reserve deputies who are political supporters of Baca — Chester Chong and Vincent Chong — were personally assigned county cars. Chester Chong used 618 gallons of gas during a recent 10-month period. His duties as a reserve are centered on picking up foreign dignitaries from the airport and coordinating their visits, officials said.

When The Times first inquired, a sheriff’s spokesman initially denied that Vovos, a Baca fundraiser, was assigned a county car. But after The Times presented the department with conflicting evidence, the paper was told Vovos did get a county car. Gas logs presented to the Board of Supervisors, however, showed that although Vovos was the primary driver of the car, other deputies also used it.

Some of the department’s initial confusion, officials said, may have been due to supervisors’ assigning cars to individuals when the cars were meant to be pool vehicles.