By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
THE DEBACLE CAME TO LIGHT after Ploehn, who had spent 28 years “on the line” as a foster care worker, started asking her staff what she could do to help them. Some complained about how supplies were budgeted, so Ploehn asked J. Tyler McCauley, the county auditor-controller, to audit the procurement of supplies. That audit led to the dirty secret that four employees were enjoying themselves with gift cards meant for the children.
“I’ve begun disciplinary procedures,” she says. “I do not want employees here not doing the best thing for children and their families.” Unlike employees in private life, who would be summarily fired, these county government workers “have civil-service protections. We have to show evidence why they should or should not be disciplined.”
Ploehn can discipline them using a range of five options, from a letter of warning to termination — yet only two members of the Board of Supervisors, Gloria Molina and Michael Antonovich, are expressly demanding their firings.
The elected board has a recent history of passing the buck when civil-service protections make it hard to fire workers: This year, the board members expressed shock that scores — some say hundreds — of incompetent Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor Medical Center nurses and doctors remained on payroll long after officials promised to remove them.
And now, they are not exactly demanding the firings of the Gift Card Four.
“The discipline they should receive depends on each individual case,” wanly insists Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who represents a large area of L.A. County jammed with an unusual number of group foster homes. “These kind of things happen. But when we give out turkeys, we have to be careful those turkeys aren’t given away to friends.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky “will closely watch what the department does,” aide Joel Bellman says. “If there are prosecutorial criminal offenses, that process should take its course as well.” David Sommers, the press secretary for Supervisor Don Knabe, says Knabe “supports the idea that there needs to be firings.”
Supervisor Michael Antonovich goes further, flatly stating: “I totally support firings and criminal proceedings against those who committed this offense.” Antonovich’s communication deputy, Tony Bell, says the case is about “bad apples that have been weeded out — and that’s good.”
Only Supervisor Gloria Molina seemed truly outraged: “To have employees take advantage of these poor children is appalling,” she says. “These employees should be terminated immediately and should pay restitution!”
While commending Ploehn’s request of the audit, Molina says the incident is a test of the director’s resolve. Ploehn “has to show her employees that she is in command. She needs to terminate the people who did this — immediately.”
Ploehn will not divulge what punishment she has meted out. But McCauley, the auditor who found the graft, took the matter to the district attorney.
“I was appalled by the bad judgment,” he says. “It is a very small group of people, but they will be disciplined for what they did.” Assistant D.A. Demerjian, who heads the Public Integrity Division, says the case is under review.
Foster kid Chris, after talking to the Weekly, asks a few of the other boys at his South L.A. group home if they have ever received gift vouchers. They say no. “Damn,” he says. “It’s a government agency and there’s corruptcy [his invented word] going on. That’s fucked up. Damn. In a business that’s made for kids.”
But he’s stoic. He has to be. With all the corruptcy, he knows he’s got to go it alone.
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