(AP) – The California Highway Patrol has suspended the police powers of dozens of officers after discovering they got overtime pay for thousands of unworked hours in a case that could lead to criminal charges, officials said Friday.
An investigation uncovered at least $360,000 in fraudulent overtime pay collected by officers and approved by their supervising sergeants in the agency’s East Los Angeles office between March 2016 and into 2018, said Chief Mark Garrett, head of the agency’s southern division.
“This information has shaken us to our core,” Garrett said. “I’m personally taken aback and angry about it.”
Investigators are sharing details of the probe with county prosecutors, who will consider whether to file criminal charges in the case, Garrett said, adding that he believes that would be appropriate.
“We have every reason to believe they were committing theft from the taxpayers of California,” he said. “We feel that criminal activity occurred.”
Garrett declined to say exactly how many officers and supervisors are believed involved, adding that the investigation isn’t over. Most of them, he said, have been placed on paid administrative leave and their peace officer powers have been removed.
He acknowledged that any criminal case involving police work or testimony by the officers and sergeants involved in the overtime fraud could be compromised. But he said no such cases have yet been identified.
California Highway Patrol Commissioner Warren Stanley said he’s “angered and appalled.”
“Any employee who violates policy and law sullies the public trust all of us work hard to earn every day,” he said in a news release.
The East Los Angeles office is the only one of the agency’s 103 commands believed involved in the fraudulent overtime, Garrett said, adding that the others have passed initial assessments of their overtime records and will undergo more elaborate audits.
“We have every reason to believe this is an isolated cancer in an otherwise healthy body,” he said. “We plan to cut it out, remove it, repair the body and move on from there.”
Garrett said it’s unclear why the fraudulent activity apparently was thriving in the East Los Angeles office and nowhere else.
“I will say a culture there did grow,” he said. “It did become a real entity, and I think people become emboldened. The more people around you you see engaging in certain behavior, the more compelled you are to engage in the same type of behavior.”
Suspicions about the fraudulent overtime arose last March after command staff in the East Los Angeles office noticed anomalies in overtime records, Garrett said.
All of the overtime logged for hours that weren’t worked stem from assignments with road crews with the California Department of Transportation. Officers can get between $86 to $104 an hour in overtime pay with the Caltrans details, which involves making sure transportation crews stay safe while they conduct maintenance and other work.
The California Highway Patrol has implemented changes since discovering the overtime fraud, including increasing management oversight and revising overtime procedures, Garrett said.
“We’re embarrassed about this,” he said. “We’re not happy about the behavior of our members of the department. When we found out about this, we knew what the right thing to do as management was – do a thorough, complete, comprehensive investigation of our own employees at the risk of public scrutiny because it’s the right thing to do.”
He added: “We will fix this.”