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Sheriff's Department wrongly keeps inmates' money, audit finds

Los Angeles Times,
BYLINE: Robert Faturechi,

Los Angeles Co., CA

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department boosted its revenue by keeping more than $1 million of inmates' money and mishandled at least $160 million in special funds, according to an audit.

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials inappropriately kept more than $1 million belonging to county inmates in a two-year period, an audit released Thursday found.

When inmates are booked, the cash they have on them is held until they're released. And while they're inside, their loved ones can deposit money into accounts the prisoners can use to buy goods from jailhouse commissaries.

Every year, money is left behind by inmates who are released and don't claim their funds.

Sheriff's officials have been using that money to boost their department's revenue when they should have been alerting the county treasurer to put out a public notice about the funds. And if the money remained unclaimed, it should have gone to the county's general fund, not the Sheriff's Department.

That problem and others were detailed in a report by the county's auditor-controller. The audit found that sheriff's officials incorrectly handled at least $160 million in special funds.

The Sheriff's Department, like many other government agencies, maintains special funds to store proceeds from revenue streams that have legally restricted uses. For example, money from vehicle registration fees is supposed to be used to combat car theft.

According to state rules, when government agencies gather excessive revenue in these funds, they are supposed to reduce fees or create reserve accounts. But according to the report, sheriff's officials accrued more than $160 million in these accounts.

Department officials said they are now creating plans to spend the money they control and to implement all of the recommendations made by the auditor-controller.

"We appreciate this audit," sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said.

County officials said the problems found by the auditor related to accounting missteps, not anything more nefarious.

Glen Dragovich, a director for the sheriff's administrative and training division, said the department would probably not push for fees to be reduced but instead is creating formal spending plans.

"There is a balance year after year because I don't know what the next year is going to bring, so we're conservative in how we spend it," he said.

He said about $65 million of the $160 million was part of a countywide fingerprint database fund that sheriff's officials did not solely control.

There are rules, in general, about what the various funds can be spent on, he said, which poses another challenge. "We can't just go out and buy stuff," he said.

Dragovich downplayed the seriousness of the problems found by the auditor, saying they all related to accounting practices.

"These special funds are in each published budget," he said. "There's nothing being hidden here."

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