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Alleged Thieves Still on County Payroll 

Four county workers accused of taking gift cards meant for foster kids remain on the job

Wednesday, Dec 12 2007
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FOUR LOS ANGELES COUNTY EMPLOYEES who allegedly diverted special funds intended for foster kids into nights on the town for themselves and their pals — and whose names have been vociferously protected by the government for a month — are still on the job.

Department of Children and Family Services Director Patricia Ploehn, asked if the four are working, responded: “Yes.” The justification for this, echoed by two county lawyers and two DCFS public relations officials, is that in the huge county government, disciplinary action “takes time.”

“This is not Microsoft,” says DCFS communication director Louise Grasmehr. “You can’t just fire them.”

click to enlarge (Illustration by Ryan Ward)
  • (Illustration by Ryan Ward)

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The story of the Gift Card Four — who used the gift cards to gain entry to the House of Blues and attend Wicked — enraged the public after local media reported on their behavior, which was unearthed during an audit of the DCFS.

The department is mandated to protect abused, neglected and abandoned children. But an audit in August found $1.25 million spent on a virtual mountain of toner cartridges — so many that the cartridges would expire before they could be used — and the needless purchase of more than 100 unused digital cameras whose purpose was murky at best.

“I can’t recall a time where I have seen worse things in a county department,” Assistant Auditor Controller Mary Olms, a 30-year veteran of the auditor’s office, told the ?L.A.Weekly.

In that August audit, a reference was made to the misuse of gift cards by employees in the foster-care children’s mentoring section, which led to a second audit in November that found four workers had misspent more than $200,000 in gift cards meant for poor foster kids.

That second report also found suspicious behavior by county workers in the procurement section, including 57 purchase orders ranging from $4,900 to $4,999 — just shy of the $5,000 threshold that prompts higher scrutiny by their supervisors.

But most of the public attention focused on the tiny, six-person mentoring section, a relatively new office charged with finding adult mentors for foster kids. Since then, county officials have consistently refused to name the four implicated workers, saying the employees are protected from outing by civil-service rules.

However, one name did emerge from a case file in the District Attorney’s Office, which is investigating possible criminal wrongdoing: Sherry Hiller. Despite the fact that Hiller and three others are still working, one source familiar with the mentoring section paints a picture of turmoil inside, saying, “Nobody is doing much except for crying here.” Of Hiller, the source says, “She’s lost weight. It’s terrible for her. It’s like she’s onstage with no clothes on and everybody is pointing at her laughing.”

According to this source, the mentoring section misused the gift cards, but only in reaction to a flood of money the small department received late in the 2006-’07 fiscal year. According to this source, the workers justified their use of money meant for kids by arguing that the funds had to be spent — or they would not get as much funding for gift cards and mentoring next year.

Daphna Ziman, the founder of Children Uniting Nations, a nonprofit group that links mentors with foster children, corroborated that version of events. Ziman, a child welfare advocate, says she had helped persuade Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to pledge $2.5 million for mentoring, which the county then funneled into DCFS.

“I have to say this problem with the mentoring section is partly my fault,” Ziman says. “I’ve been screaming at them to spend this money.”

She just never dreamed how county workers would interpret that. In Ziman’s view, the money began to stack up after the county’s lawyers failed to establish a protocol for spending it. “How dare they take so long?” she says. “How am I supposed to go and ask for the money again if it isn’t spent?”

The county source says that, awash with this unspent money, some workers in the mentoring division took the cards for themselves and their friends. Says the source: “There were no guidelines for using gift cards.”

REACTING TO THAT RATIONALE, county auditor Olm retorts, “Let’s go back to common sense. It doesn’t matter if you have guidelines or not.”

Amy Lemley, policy director at the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, which gives out 1,000 gift vouchers to foster care graduates every year, says the lack of guidelines is easy to deal with in an ethical manner: “We send out letters to the [child] recipients asking if they want them,” Lemley says. “Only after they reply do we send the vouchers. That way we have a record of it.”

Director Ploehn and Chief Deputy Director Susan Kerr — the two county honchos who sought the audits — now won’t discuss any details about which employees were involved. And numerous calls by the Weekly to the mentoring section head, William Gay, were ignored. Calls to his supervisor, Jennifer Hottenroth, went unanswered as well. People who know Gay and Hottenroth say that they are both dedicated to providing mentors for foster children.

Assistant District Attorney David Demerjian also will not provide details, except to say that the gift card misuse matter remains under investigation.

The universal response by a half dozen DCFS and county officials is that personnel issues — names — are never publicly discussed before a “final disciplinary action is completed.” As a result, while some information has seeped out of the massive DCFS, much more remains secret.

Unlike the four employees still working in the small mentoring section, the procurement section has undergone major changes since the audits. In the latest organizational chart of DCFS management, Mary Graves was elevated to the head of procurement.

According to Tony Bell, press deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich, two employees in the procurement section were terminated, another was suspended for 30 days and another was reprimanded.

Olm, of the Auditor Controller’s Office, commends the close cooperation of several DCFS managers in helping auditors pursue information in both the mentoring and procurement sections, saying, “I never had a situation where anyone getting an audit was as proactive as them. That is a good thing.”

But when it comes to protecting the names of those implicated, a source with long experience in media relations says DCFS plays a cynical game: “The department counts on you [the media] wearing yourself out. They are bigger, and they are more numerous than you. They go on like cockroaches after nuclear holocaust; everybody is dead and they are still there.”

Says Robert Stern, a watchdog and expert in ethics in government and president of the Center on Governmental Studies, “Unless they are pressed, they won’t say anything.”

In fact, legal precedent in California throws some doubt on Los Angeles County’s secretive protection of the alleged wrongdoers’ names.

In 1978, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sued UC San Francisco to get the names of employees who had been audited on suspicion of fraud. When the public university denied the union those names, the case ended up in the Court of Appeals.

The judges wrestled over the conflict between the California Public Records Act — which promises the public and the media detailed access to how the government and its workers operate — and an individual worker’s right to privacy.

The court ruled in favor of handing over the names of government workers to the union. In their opinion, the judges included reference to another right-of-privacy case, Chronicle Pub. Co. vs. Superior Court, in which the court found that when there is “reasonable cause to believe the complaint to be well founded, the right of public access to related public records exists.”

In the instance of the Gift Card Four, as well in the case of the digital-camera-happy procurement section, county officials have already publicly argued that the complaints against the workers are well founded. A 30-year veteran of the Auditor Controller’s Office has even called the behavior among the worst ever documented by a DCFS audit.

The Weekly has asked county officials to respond to the fact that legal precedent exists for releasing public employee names when a complaint against them is well founded. DCFS Director Ploehn says she is awaiting word from the county counsel.

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