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California

Audit finds L.A. County sheriff’s officials improperly used aircraft

An audit released Thursday found that Los Angeles County sheriff’s managers improperly used department aircraft, including a helicopter ride for a commander’s daughter on her way to a retirement party.

In another instance, sheriff’s officials used a department airplane to fly to Connecticut, costing the county more than $35,000 for a trip that would have been significantly cheaper and probably faster on a commercial flight.

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But the audit also found no evidence to support other accusations directed against the department’s air unit.

The county audit was prompted earlier this year by a Times report about allegations that officials were abusing aircraft privileges, purposely delaying emergency calls to make the case for more overtime pay and possibly manipulating time sheets.

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Though the audit found that aircraft were improperly used, it did not find evidence to support the deputies’ most troubling claims: that calls for emergency service were ignored or time sheets were manipulated. The auditor-controller’s office found that those allegations were not backed up by sheriff’s records.

Department spokesman Steve Whitmore called the audit an “exoneration” of the department’s air support division, saying the most serious allegations were unsubstantiated.

“They’re always going to find little things that are questionable,” he said. “The sheriff does not accept any questionable uses of county items and is prepared to correct anything that needs correcting.”

The audit pointed to three problematic trips. Along with the $35,000 flight to Connecticut to research new helicopters, a department plane was flown to Tucson in 2010 to pick up three sheriff’s officials there for a conference. The trip was recorded as a training flight, a description that “appears notably convenient,” the audit found.

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The third flight, also in 2010, involved the daughter of a commander being picked up in Calabasas by a sheriff’s helicopter and given a ride to the commander’s retirement party in East Los Angeles. At the time, the helicopter was supposed to be assigned to patrol duty.

“The daughter had allegedly been delayed by highway traffic,” according to the audit.

At a county Board of Supervisors meeting in March, after the allegations were made public, the unit’s captain said that one of the accusers had himself flown two relatives on a department helicopter a few years back, picking them up from North County and flying them to Los Angeles International Airport.

Whitmore said the Sheriff’s Department has not yet decided whether to discipline anyone involved in the questionable flights mentioned in the audit. He said he did not have any of their names, and that Sheriff Lee Baca had not yet decided whether to release those names.

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robert.faturechi@latimes.com


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