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Auditors: A top L.A. County executive’s efforts to get future son-in-law a job add up to ‘conflict of interest’

October 24, 2009 |  2:43 pm
Los Angeles County’s second-highest-ranking employee took numerous steps to secure a county job for her future son-in-law that paid nearly $1,000 more a month than the position called for, according to a confidential audit reviewed by The Times.

County auditors said that Sharon Harper, the top deputy to the county’s chief executive, had a “clear conflict of interest” in the hiring of Ed’Ward Rhone and that the chief executive “should consider appropriate disciplinary action.”

The Times had sought the audit for several weeks, submitting public-information requests to supervisors’ offices and the county auditor controller. County lawyers denied the request, saying that releasing the report would be an unwarranted intrusion into Harper’s privacy. After The Times obtained the audit independently, county officials refused to comment on whether Harper had been disciplined.

The audit determined that Harper played an “instrumental” role in getting Rhone, 29, a job with the county’s fire department and did so because she had a personal relationship with him.

At the time of Rhone’s hiring in November of last year, he was engaged to Harper’s daughter. The couple has since married.

“Ms. Harper should be aware that earning and maintaining the public trust is essential to her position as Chief Deputy, CEO,” according to a seven-page report signed by County Auditor Controller Wendy Watanabe and dated Sept. 16. “Because her actions reflect upon the county government as a whole, Ms. Harper should have anticipated how important it is to keep her personal interest separate from her work duties.”

The audit, conducted after an anonymous letter came into the county’s fraud hotline office, details Harper’s direct role in hiring Rhone. The audit says that, among other actions, Harper arranged for Rhone’s transfer from a Department of Health Services position, for which he had reported for just one-half of a day of orientation, to a less demanding fire-department job that should have paid 25% less.

Auditors said Rhone was “overcompensated” for his duties.  

“Mr. Rhone is not ‘technically’ receiving a $1,000 per month bonus; however he does receive a monthly salary that is $955 more than he would have,” according to the audit.

The Times was unable to reach Rhone for comment.

The recommendation that Harper face unspecified discipline was confidentially delivered Sept. 16 to William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive, and the five county supervisors. Harper since has continued to appear at board meetings.

Reached by phone Friday, Harper said: “I’m not discussing this with you. ... I think this conversation is over.” Fujioka also declined comment.

"If it’s about Sharon, not much I can say," he wrote in an e-mail sent Friday. "I have to respect her rights."

Supervisors Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky also declined comment.

Harper is a longtime county executive. In her current position, she supervises the department heads who oversee some 100,000 employees, the largest workforce of any employer in the region. Her annual salary was $223,500 in 2007, the most recent available publicly.

Auditors wrote that, although relatives are not prohibited from working for the county, "we found evidence that Ms. Harper may have given Mr. Rhone preferential treatment during his hiring process."

Among the findings:

-- After Rhone became engaged to Harper’s daughter, then-Director of Human Resources Mike Henry interviewed him to see if he was eligible for county employment. Henry, who reported to Harper, subsequently phoned a top official in the Fire Department to see if there was a job for Rhone.

-- In late October 2008, Harper ordered another one of her subordinates to create a new position in the Fire Department, including it in a request for new employees submitted to the Board of Supervisors. According to the audit, staffers later said that the request was "somewhat unusual" because it included no supporting documents justifying the position.

-- Rhone was hired into a higher-paying job in the county’s health department and immediately cleared for  "lateral transfer" to what should have been a lower-pay-grade position with the Fire Department. The audit found that, as a "direct result" of Harper’s actions, Rhone "effectively advanced in pay four years faster."

The findings mark the second time in two years that the county’s employment of one of Harper's relatives has drawn scrutiny.

In 2007, The Times reported that Harper’s son, Christopher A. Bunn Jr., was given a new county job after he was twice disciplined for violating Sheriff’s Department policy by associating with suspected criminals. At the time, he was employed as an aide at the Lancaster station.

Harper’s husband, Jerry Harper, now retired, had been the sheriff’s second-highest ranking employee during the 1990s.

The department’s Office of Independent Review, which monitors internal affairs investigations, contended that Bunn should have received more than the three-day suspension for the first violation in 2004, records show. When another violation occurred in 2007, some department officials determined that Bunn should be fired, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Instead, he was transferred to the Department of Public Health, where he made several thousand dollars less a year but retained his pension and benefits. Harper said at the time that she had nothing to do with her son’s transfer.

-- Garrett Therolf

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