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The 5 Highest-Paid California State Employees All Work in the Prison System, Make Over $500,000 Per Year

Updated after the jump: California Controller John Chiang won't list the names of state employees along with their salaries. When should privacy trump transparency?

Originally posted July 5 at 3:05 p.m.

While California's health and education budgets continue to landslide, it's good to know the state's most serious and violent criminals are still being assigned the finest medical caregivers around [Bloomberg News]. Or at least they'd better be bomb, the way they're compensated:

The highest-earning employee on state payroll in 2010, according to Controller John Chiang's updated database, was the head parole psychiatrist within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He or she made $838,706 last year.

The controller's office told Bloomberg that the salary "was raised by bonuses or payout of unused vacation time," but that only raises more questions. Like, why would so many bonuses and vacation days be handed out in the first place, at a time when thousands of teachers are being laid off and college students pay more and more money they don't have for an increasingly subpar education? (The prisons themselves aren't exactly rolling in dough, either: They claim they can't even afford to screen prison guards for possibly criminal cell phones before they walk into work.)

The second- and third-place prison employees on Chiang's list, both physicians/surgeons, must have had quite a stock of vacation days and gold behavior stars as well, because they cashed in at a staggering $777,423 and $736, 378, respectively, in 2010.

No. 4, the chief dentist at the Sierra Conservation Center, ranked considerably lower at $599,403 -- still crazy high for a prisoners' tooth inspector. Another shrink on staff raked in $582,609 for the coveted No. 5 spot.

Now, we're all for inmates' rights, but no Earthly healing powers -- often lost on the state's most troubled, helpless demographic -- could possibly be worth over half a million dollars.

Altogether, the state's top five salaries total almost $3 million. The next five didn't do so bad for themselves, either:

The figures show that the 10 highest-paid state employees each earned more than $500,000 in 2010, for a total of $6.2 million. All but three were doctors or dentists for the Corrections Department. Joe Dear, the chief investment officer at the California Public Employees Retirement System, ranked seventh with a gross pay of $548,142, the data show.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the prison system, didn't immediately respond to a telephone request for comment.

We can only hope Governor Jerry Brown's elimination of 400 executive positions within the prison system might have included a salary trimming for its top docs, as well. Stay tuned as we try to find the names of these high-rollers -- because they seem to deserve a bit of public shaming.

Update: Controller John Chiang probably thought he'd be basking in government-transparency accolades this week, upon releasing a full list of state-employee salaries. But the Los Angeles Times instead rips him to shreds today in a scathing piece that focuses on his reasons for not identifying all the employees on the list by name. An excerpt:

Chiang, a Democrat who has received millions in campaign contributions from state employee unions, did not include workers' names even though that information is public and has been provided upon request for years.

In October, in response to the salary scandals in Bell, Chiang collected and published payroll information from California counties and cities. His staff left names out then because "it wasn't our data, [and] couldn't be verified or scrubbed for confidential information," said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the controller.

Chiang followed the same template in posting the state payroll. Roper denied that the identities of employees were left out to avoid upsetting the politically powerful employee unions.

However, Roper tells the Weekly that the controller is willing to release any names we request specifically. (We've asked for the top 10 earners; he says he'll have that information by the end of the day. Hopefully.)

See, the Times isn't particularly concerned with the names themselves -- just the principle that the public be allowed complete access to them.

Nancy Kincaid, press officer for the receiver in charge of prison healthcare, says such a database would pose great danger to the individuals involved. She says she's been able to convince all journalists who have called so far that, due to "a heightened concern for security," the personal information of the employees on the controller's list should be kept private.

As for the salaries themselves: "It's not their salary," says Kincaid. "It drives me nuts the way the controller phrases this." She explains that "some of these folks have worked for 20 to 30 years at some of the most remote facilities," and that the extra hundreds of thousands of dollars in their 2010 payouts can be attributed to the fact that they were retiring.

Vacation days built up, she says, because medical personnel were stretched thin, and "couldn't get a day off." Add that to furloughs, and things get more complicated: "You have to take your furlough time before you can ever take vacation or leave time," says Kincaid.

The press officer also takes some time to speak to the hardships of the job. "You feel like you're on a treadmill," she says. Some of the doctors listed are on-call at facilities way out in the boonies -- even "east of Bakersfield."

But how many prison-doctor retirees could there be in one year? "Because of the baby-boomer thing, more than 30 percent of the workforce is going to retire in the next 5 to 10 years," she says. (She's not sure how many physicians and surgeons work at each of the state's prison facilities.)

Kincaid explains that Jack Dolan, the Times reporter, was more concerned "about the politics of the controller" than the names themselves.

But the LA Weekly has made the decision to ask for their names, because without that public information, we have no way to look into their educational or professional backgrounds, or do our own investigation into how hiring and salary-setting really works within the state prison system.

One more strange update since yesterday's salary list: No. 1, the $838,706 shrink, has been removed. Roper blames this on an error within the state payroll department. "Our programmers, our payroll staff, contacted us and said that was incorrect," he says. "That amount wasn't actually paid to the person."

We'll update as soon as more information is available.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]


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