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Audit finds problems in L.A. County sheriff's air division

October 10, 2012 |  9:13 pm

Sheriff's Department rescue helicopter

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials failed to competitively bid helicopter repair services, improperly changed language to county purchasing guidelines and bought dozens of jackets for their Aero deputies that the deputies may have been required to purchase themselves, according to a county audit made public Wednesday.

The audit was ordered after The Times reported earlier this year on allegations that sheriff’s officials from the emergency air support division intentionally missed calls for help to bolster the case for more funding, and overpaid a private contractor almost $11 million for unneeded work and equipment.

Those allegations were made in an internal memo by a sheriff’s sergeant who detailed questionable payments and called on Aero Bureau supervisors to be investigated for conflicts of interest and violations of county purchasing rules.

Two other deputies assigned to Aero Bureau had also alleged improprieties; one made his claims in a department memo, the other leveled his accusations in a lawsuit.

The division's captain returned fire at a county board meeting, dramatically accusing his accusers of their own misconduct.

The most serious allegations -- that air support supervisors purposely ignored calls for help -- will be addressed in a future audit, expected to be released next month. The audit released Wednesday dealt mainly with the allegations of financial impropriety. The county’s auditor dinged the sheriff’s Aero officials on some matters, but found that most of the allegations lobbed against them were unsubstantiated.

Among the problems discovered, according to the report:

• Officials spent almost $10,000 on inclement weather jackets -- valued at $203 each -- that can’t be used during flights because they don’t meet air safety standards. The auditor doubted whether it was right to classify these jackets as safety equipment, saying they might have been more properly classified as optional clothing that deputies should have bought at their own expense.

• Officials are not putting much of their helicopter maintenance and repair services out to competitive bid. At least 40% of a sample of helicopter work was not competitively bid on.

• The department made changes to purchasing guidelines without properly notifying the Board of Supervisors, allowing sheriff’s officials in some cases sole discretion to pick vendors without a competitive bidding process. “It is likely this action resulted in higher costs for some vendor services,” the report states. “Though we found no evidence of undue influence between vendors and sheriff’s personnel pertaining to purchases … the environment has been established in which such influence can germinate.”

The auditor found no evidence for a number of other allegations. Among the claims the auditor found to be unsubstantiated were allegations that officials were bid-rigging in favor of one vendor and bought excessive quantities of some items at inflated prices.

The auditor also found no evidence that a vendor overcharged the department hundreds of thousands of dollars for labor and that a sheriff’s official had inappropriate relationships with that vendor.

Sheriff's officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.


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Photo: An audit of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's emergency air support division faulted some actions, found no evidence of wrongdoing in others. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times