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Byline: TROY ANDERSON Staff Writer

It was a routine call to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department: A suspected intoxicated driver had rear-ended another vehicle.

When the deputy arrived at the scene, he says he made the judgment that the suspect was not intoxicated and that he was dealing with a routine traffic accident. So he let the suspect go without asking if he had taken drugs or alcohol, conducting a field sobriety test or even writing up an accident report.

Less than two hours later, the driver ran a red light and struck another vehicle, killing the woman driving it.

The Sheriff's Department fired Deputy Onorata Agrusa, citing ``extreme incompetence'' in his handling of the August 2003 incident. But Agrusa is back on the sheriff's payroll and defends his handling of the traffic stop.

``The bottom line is any time someone dies there is always going to be a fall person,'' Agrusa said in an interview last week. ``That's the case in just about every situation.''

What happened is something that happens often in Los Angeles County government. Even though a hearing officer agreed Agrusa's actions warranted serious discipline, the Civil Service Commission reduced Agrusa's punishment to a 30-day suspension.

The case, detailed in a Civil Service Commission report, is one of more than 100 in recent years involving county employees whose firings or suspensions were softened by the commission.

The commission overturned or reduced discipline recommended by various county departments in nearly half of all cases from 2001 to 2004, according to a Daily News review of records.

``This is an extraordinarily high rate of reversals,'' said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. ``I bet the unions have a very good relationship with the commission. And it seems amazing to me there would be that many reversals and they never would increase the penalties.''

Officials in county departments have long complained the system needs reform and that the Civil Service Commission is too lenient, making it too difficult to discipline employees.

``Our concern for the public's interest is higher than giving someone a second or third chance,'' said sheriff's Chief Bill McSweeney, who oversees employee discipline and internal affairs.

``And not all parts of the system see it that way. When you talk about someone who has abused their office and victimized the public, giving them another chance doesn't feel very good.''

But commission and union officials say the various county departments are at fault because they simply often don't do a thorough job documenting disciplinary cases, exceed the one-year statute of limitations to investigate, only take action against employees after egregious situations, and fail to impose progressive discipline to discourage misbehavior.

`Close calls'

Civil Service Commission President Z. Greg Kahwajian said the cases the commission considers are the ``close calls.''

``If we were to uphold the department's discipline each and every time and appeared to be a rubber stamp for the departments, what would that say about the whole civil service process?'' Kahwajian asked.

Lyle Fulks, a civil service advocate for Service Employees International Union, Local 660, which represents about 50,000 county employees, said the commission is not influenced by the unions.

``Employees get a fair shake at the commission, no matter what the result is,'' Fulks said.

And Richard Shinee, lead counsel for the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs union, said sheriff's officials don't look closely enough at the facts of cases and often make the wrong disciplinary decisions.

``They don't want to own up to the fact that they are overdisciplining,'' Shinee said. ``They run an indiscriminate slaughterhouse over there and when it comes time for someone objective to look at these cases, they can't prove them.''

The five-member Civil Service Commission, an independent administrative appeals body established by the county charter with a $1.2 million annual budget, is appointed by the Board of Supervisors. It includes two retired county employees, a real estate developer, executive director of the county's First 5 LA Commission and a retired Los Angeles Unified School District administrator.

Each is paid $150 per meeting, and the commission contracts with about 60 hearing officers, paid up to $750 a day, who make disciplinary recommendations to the commission.

In recent years, some states, such as Georgia and Florida where public employee unions are weak, have made sweeping civil service reforms, reducing or eliminating government employee protections in place since the late 1800s.

Few changes

But California, where public employee unions are one of the most powerful political forces in the state, has made few, if any, changes in a civil service system that has been in place since the passage of the Civil Service Act in 1913.

In three reports in recent decades, the state's Little Hoover Commission has called for reform of the civil service system, describing it as a ``costly and dysfunctional'' system burdened by regulations that foster a cycle of failure and a culture of mediocrity in government.

``The inability to discipline adequately or terminate public employees is the primary reason why the public sector is so inefficient relative to the private sector,'' said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The calls for reform have come as the county has significantly increased the number of employees it disciplines in recent years. Yet officials are concerned with how many of those disciplinary actions actually stick.

From 2001 to 2004, the number of health department employees disciplined more than doubled from 110 to 229.

Since January 2004, 447 employees have been disciplined at the troubled Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, including 229 who resigned or were fired.

``We are concerned about the commission's review of these matters, but we will not be deterred,'' said Epifanio Peinado, a civil service advocacy administrator in the Department of Human Resources, which is overseeing discipline at MLK, where lapses in care have been linked to patient deaths.

Meanwhile, the number of sheriff's employees disciplined from 2001 to 2005 nearly doubled from 75 to 145.

Multiple firings

In several cases, McSweeney said the department had to fire employees two or more times because the commission overturned their discharges and the employees went on to commit other fireable offenses.

``There was one guy we had to fire three times before it finally stuck,'' McSweeney said.

At DCFS, while the number of employees disciplined nearly doubled from 18 in 2001 to 38 in 2004, the percentage of disciplinary cases the commission overturned or reduced also increased from 36 percent to 40 percent.

``Certainly, as a department, we don't recommend a discharge unless we believe something egregious has happened,'' DCFS Director David Sanders said. ``Those (percentages of reversals) aren't surprising, but are very, very high.''

Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review, which oversees internal sheriff's investigations, said he is especially troubled by the number of discharges overturned by the commission.

Out of 17 sheriff's cases the commission considered in 2003, the panel reversed five discharges and reduced another to a suspension.

``The danger to the public is that in that kind of situation, particularly in sheriff's cases, you may have a person who has abused his authority or who has integrity issues, yet they will be able to continue to perform as a peace officer.''

`Play Solomon'

McSweeney said part of the problem with the system is a commission rule that allows appellants and the department to strike two hearing officers off a list of three offered in each case.

As a result, McSweeney said the hearing officers, in an attempt to get selected and get paid, try to ``play Solomon,'' finding that the county proved its case but recommending the commission reverse or reduce the discipline.

Because of this -- and the good chance employees have of getting their discipline softened by the commission -- McSweeney said the county agrees to settle many cases before they even get to the commission, opting for a reduced punishment instead of risking a discipline reversal.

McSweeney estimates up to 80 percent of the department's disciplinary cases are softened, either as the result of a settlement or commission decision.

Although county officials could not confirm this percentage, commission data shows the rate is high.

Of 470 disciplinary appeals filed by county employees in health, probation, sheriff and children's services agencies in 2003 and 2004, 175 were settled or withdrawn.

Of the remaining 295, 210 were still in the adjudication process and only had 85 had been considered by the commission.

System defended

But others defend the system, noting it was put in place to protect the rights of public employees.

``There are some real tragedies among people that are fired who lose their homes and sometimes they lose their wives and kids,'' Shinee said. ``They may get their jobs back, but that is a small pittance for what they went through over basically false allegations.''

Agrusa's case highlights the difficult job for both commissioners and department supervisors.

Sheriff's officials continue to defend their decision to fire Agrusa, saying he violated department policies.

Ultimately, the driver pleaded guilty in April 2005 to obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and driving under the influence of drugs. He was sentenced to jail for 30 days, placed on probation for three years and ordered to pay $50,000 in restitution.

Agrusa said he feels badly for the woman who died in the later accident. ``I understand she had two small children,'' he said.

But although he admits he didn't conduct a field sobriety test or write a traffic report, he doesn't feel guilty because he didn't observe any signs of intoxication of the driver and had no reason to detain him for a field sobriety test.

Agrusa, who now works overnight at Men's Central Jail, said that after he was discharged by the department, he was off work for 15 months without pay and had to cash in an $80,000 retirement account to support his wife and two children.

Ultimately, the commission reversed the discharge and ordered the department to give Agrusa back pay for all but 30 days, noting he had worked for the department since 1991, was commended in 2002 for saving a child's life and that another deputy involved in a similar situation only had received a 15-day suspension.

``They (departments) are too quick not to give you the benefit of the doubt and just fire you and let the chips fall where they may,'' Agrusa said. ``It came at a great loss to me.''

(213) 974-8985





SOURCE: Civil Service Commission
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 7, 2006

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