Dozens of California Highway Patrol officers are being temporarily relieved of duty amid an investigation into whether they fraudulently received hundreds of hours of overtime pay while working out of the East Los Angeles station, officials said Friday.
The probe found evidence that some officers exaggerated the number of hours they worked in protection details for Caltrans workers doing freeway maintenance. CHP officers can earn lucrative overtime for this type of work. The job typically involves sitting in a cruiser at each end of a construction zone to ensure motorists don’t get too close to the workers.
Authorities expressed shock and disappointment at the scope of the alleged misconduct by law enforcement officials, saying it extended beyond officers to higher-level managers.
“Our supervisors were complicit in this,” said Chief Mark Garrett, who oversees the CHP Southern Division. “I am extremely disheartened by the actions of these employees.”
The fraudulent overtime was worth about $360,000, the investigation found. The East L.A. station allocated about $2.5 million for reimbursable overtime during the two-year period covered by the investigation, officials said.
“I am frankly angered and appalled by the actions of those involved,” CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley said in a statement Friday. “Let me be clear, the CHP does not tolerate misconduct by any of its employees. The moment CHP management discovered the potential misconduct, we immediately launched an investigation.”
The CHP has begun sharing its findings with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which will determine whether criminal fraud charges will be filed. As of Friday afternoon, a formal criminal complaint had not been filed.
Garrett said a review of overtime processes last March uncovered irregularities, including some officers taking overtime for hours they did not work. He said there were “ringleaders” inside the station who were behind the scheme, which he said goes back at least two years, but did not elaborate.
Garrett said that he could not say how many officers were involved but that “numerous members” of the East Los Angeles station are the subject of the investigation. The station comprises 99 officers and 10 sergeants.
He declined to say whether any officers had confessed to their involvement in the scheme, citing the ongoing investigation.
The California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen issued a statement Friday regarding the investigation.
“On behalf of the 14,000 men and women who make up [our] membership, we’re saddened by these allegations against employees of the California Highway Patrol,” the statement said. “This ongoing investigation serves as a reminder to us all of the important bond of trust we share with the public we serve and the importance of carrying out our duties with the integrity expected of our profession.”
Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff and legal advisor for Plumas County who teaches law enforcement ethics, said the scale of the alleged fraud was significant.
“It doesn’t happen that often in law enforcement,” he said. “This undermines public confidence. Next to planting evidence, this is the worst.”
If it is proved the officers have taken money without work, they could face fraud, conspiracy and theft of public funds charges. And if they are found to have lied, prosecutors must reveal that behavior in any criminal cases in which the officers may testify.
“Dishonesty is the lowest offense for officers,” Obayashi said. “You lie, you die career-wise. Everyone proven to have faked their timecards here, it is a career-ending incident.”
Officials examined records from the state’s 103 CHP stations, and the improper activity appears to be confined to the Southern Division, Stanley said.
Garrett said that once the discrepancies were discovered, the agency immediately initiated an investigation “to further identify any employees who betrayed the trust of the public and their fellow members of the CHP.”
The chief said the agency has since altered its overtime practices to prevent further abuses. Garrett said any deviation from the new regulations would require his personal approval.
So many officers are under scrutiny that CHP is shifting extra staffers to the Southern Division, which patrols the Los Angeles area, sources told The Times.
California Department of Transportation crews working on freeways face dangers from motorists who speed past. There have been numerous public outreach efforts and stricter traffic laws aimed at slowing traffic and reducing the numbers of workers injured or killed.
Scores of Caltrans employees have been killed and hundreds have been injured in the line of duty, most of them victims of errant motorists who have plowed into work crews on freeways.
Garrett said Caltrans was assisting in the CHP investigation. But it was unclear whether Caltrans has launched its own investigation into the suspected overtime fraud.