For months, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Phillip Hansen heard the grumblings: Deep-pocketed donors and other well-connected individuals working as reserve deputies were driving around in unmarked Sheriff’s Department cars. One reserve, a restaurant owner who threw a fundraiser for Sheriff Lee Baca, was frequently seen parking a county-owned Ford Crown Victoria outside his La Mirada restaurant, a popular hangout for deputies.
Hansen, who heads the volunteer deputy program, was troubled by the reports and asked for an accounting of which reserves had take-home cars.
He was stunned by the response.
“I basically got nicely told I really wasn’t authorized to have that information,” Hansen recalled.
It turns out at least one reserve — the Baca fundraiser — was assigned a county car. A sheriff’s spokesman conceded that other reserves may have had vehicles as well, but he declined to provide a detailed accounting of how many received such a perk.
Last year, the Sheriff’s Department refused to comply with a public records request from The Times regarding take-home county car use and gas consumption by four reserves who have given Baca political support or gifts. The department declined to even confirm the men were reserves, despite all four being named on department websites or other public listings.
When reached by phone last month, one of the four men, Chris Vovos, refused to answer questions about whether he had a take-home car, hanging up twice. “You’re asking me for information I don’t give my own father,” he said.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore did not confirm that Vovos was assigned a car until The Times presented the department with evidence. Whitmore declined to say how many reserves had cars, but added that “being a donor to the sheriff has nothing to do with getting a car or not.”
After The Times’ inquiries, Whitmore said, Baca recalled any county vehicles assigned out to reserves and planned to draft a policy to prevent it from happening again.
The department’s reserves, who are paid a dollar a year, generally work under the supervision of full-time sworn deputies. Common tasks include administrative work and parking enforcement, though some highly trained volunteers are allowed to make on-duty arrests and work in specialized units.
Hansen and others say they can’t imagine under what circumstances reserves would need personally assigned county cars, given that most full-time sheriff’s deputies and many department supervisors don’t get the perk.
“There’s undoubtedly staff out there who could use a county car, but we can’t afford to give it to them,” Hansen said, alluding to major cuts in the department’s budget in recent years. “I could find you hundreds of them.”
Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who specializes in police ethics and training, said the practice is a questionable use of county funds and could hurt morale.
“I have never seen a department that allocates vehicles to reserves before they take care of their sworn full-time officers. That’s unheard of,” Haberfeld said. “This is not an operationally sound procedure. On the contrary, this is very bizarre and doesn’t sound ethical.”
The sheriff’s reserve program has for years faced criticism of mismanagement and special treatment. In 2010, a state agency discovered that the program gave badges to volunteers who flunked mandatory law enforcement tests and attended classes at unauthorized locations, including a Four Seasons hotel, 20th Century Fox Studios and possibly a yacht. Among the 99 reserves who were either stripped of their badges or demoted as a result were contributors, businesspeople, at least one celebrity — and Vovos.
In several cases, officials discovered that some course material and attendance records had been fabricated. One trainee apparently passed a firearms test despite missing the target completely.
Hansen said he was brought in about two years ago to clean up the reserves program. After he was contacted multiple times by peers and subordinates who believed reserves were getting their own cars, he said, he felt obligated to act. Car assignments are not up to him, but rather unit commanders across the department.
Hansen said he was worried that cars being personally assigned to influential reserves would be another public embarrassment for a program staffed by more than 800 volunteers — one of whom, Shervin Lalezary, was recently lauded as a hero after ending a massive countywide manhunt by arresting an arson suspect accused of setting more than 50 fires.
“I hate to see the very good work of 800 or so like Shervin be overshadowed by the excesses of very few,” Hansen said.
The captain said special treatment within the reserves program has been cleaned up significantly in the last two years. He said big donors still “take liberties sometimes, guys like that kind of walk in whenever they want to meet with execs. Other people need to make an appointment.... That’s the kind of thing that irritates a normal person, but that’s just life.”
Whitmore said Vovos was not using his black Ford Crown Victoria for personal business, but rather to drive around the county six days a week to solicit equipment donations from construction companies for the Sheriff’s Department.
“These guys are rich,” he said. “They don’t need free cars.”
Sheriff’s Capt. Patrick Maxwell, who heads the Norwalk station, said he has seen Vovos park a county car for the last two or three years outside his business, a restaurant popular with sheriff’s employees. Maxwell said he also has often seen the car parked outside a nearby warehouse that he believes belongs to Vovos.
Maxwell said that on other occasions he has seen Vovos with the car while in plainclothes, though he said he had no way of knowing if the volunteer deputy was on duty at the time.
A 2008 audit commissioned by the Los Angeles County civil grand jury to look at countywide take-home car use found that the Sheriff’s Department did not vet requests for take-home cars thoroughly enough.