‘Ghost cars’ and ‘rampant’ fraud: Compton takes legal action against LA Sheriff’s Department

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Los Angeles County Sheriff's police car. Photo by Elliott Cowand Jr/Shutterstock.

Last week, as a precursor to a lawsuit, the City of Compton filed a legal claim against the LA County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) for “rampant” fraud, alleging that the department routinely bills the city for patrols that don’t happen. Compton pays more than $22 million a year for the LASD to patrol the city streets, requiring deputies to spend a certain amount of time there. 

The legal claim alleges that the LASD is using “ghost cars” to fraudulently bill the city. “Ghost cars is an accounting trick used in law enforcement, the Sheriff’s Department in particular, in which cars are written down as patrolling an area,” says LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman. “When in fact the people in them aren’t patrolling that area. They’re doing desk duty or some other kind of work that isn’t appropriately counted.” 

The forthcoming lawsuit is partially built on the claims made by a whistleblower. 

At a news conference last week, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said that the department does keep track of time internally and that the response to a dispute over counting hours has been blown out of proportion. He said, “We have to get close to 100%, either slightly above, slightly below. If we’re missing that target, I don’t think it’s going to be the grand conspiracy that the outgoing mayor of Compton [Aja Brown] wants it to be. To call it a fraud, that might be a little bit of a stretch.”  

Huntsman says if that is the case, then Villanueva should open the books and be fully transparent about the department’s records. “I think that the Sheriff's Department has always been difficult to penetrate and secretive at times. And that’s why we had a previous sheriff who went to prison. But Villanueva in particular has taken an aggressive political stance against oversight.” 

The Sheriff's Department has similar contracts with 42 cities in LA County. 

LASD so far has not responded to KCRW’s request for comment.

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