LA County audit finds 101 cases of fraud by public employees

Los Angeles County auditors found evidence of 101 cases of fraud among public employees during the second half of 2009, it was reported today.

Department of Public Social Services employee Trang Dinh used the personal data of 82 welfare recipients to file fraudulent income tax returns for refunds totaling at least $100,000.

"He got this information during home visits and from the department's computer system," Guy Zelenski, the chief investigator for the auditor-controller, told the Los Angeles Times. "He told us he was trying to pay off gambling debts."

Dinh was fired. Zelenski said investigators are reviewing additional cases before filing charges against Dinh.

Three Los Angeles County Fire Department managers played golf during work hours but claimed a full day on their timecards; one of the employees even put down for overtime, according to the audit.

Two of the employees were not punished, because the fire department let them report working full shifts if they put in at least an hour of work, The Times reported. That practice has since been changed.

Fire Chief Michael Freeman said there was no wrongdoing, because the employees had worked extra hours on other days. He disputed the audit's finding that one of the managers was disciplined and, indeed, the auditor-controller's office said it mistakenly reported that one of the employees was given a letter of reprimand.

The names of those suspected of misconduct were not made public in the audit, but The Times was able to confirm many of their names through interviews and public documents.

The audit said Deputy Chief Helen Jo was given a letter of reprimand for her role in the hiring of the future son-in-law of a high-ranking county executive. The employee, Edward Rhone, got a salary and employee benefits that were too high for his position, The Times reported.

The audit also found that Sharon Harper, then the county's second highest-ranking employee, gave her daughter's then-fiance preferential treatment. According to the audit, Rhone has since been transferred to a more demanding job in order to justify the salary, and Harper, who was demoted, has retired.

In another case, the county paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a janitorial services contractor, Grace Building Maintenance Co., for services never done.

The contracts with the Beaches and Harbors and Public Library departments were canceled, and owner Beong Jeong was convicted of a felony and ordered to surrender all rights to his home to the county and pay restitution of $842,000.

The county's fraud hotline gets about 500 tips every six months. Since July 2009, county investigators found more than 360 tips to be unsubstantiated or otherwise resolved. At the end of 2009, more than 630 cases remained open.

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