What did the Sheriff’s Department pay for with $90 million in federal coronavirus response money?

Local officials and candidates are calling for more clarity on the CARES Act spending, after sheriff officials released records to Voice of OC filled with general statements that the money went to “COVID-19 related expenses” and a “public safety presumption.” 

While officials later answered follow-up questions, the documents themselves have little explanation about what the money actually paid for.

[Click here to read the financial records the department provided.]

“The public deserves a breakdown of expenses like I did with my [CARES Act] grant programs [to small businesses] where to get to see where every dollar goes,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told Voice of OC about the sheriff records.

“If [the Sheriff’s Department] followed the guidelines, then the guidelines need to be improved. If they did not, then [they] should have exceeded the guidelines and made the report as user friendly as possible for anyone to understand,” said John Moorlach, an accountant and former county supervisor who’s the Republican Party-endorsed candidate in an ongoing special election for supervisor.

“There needs to be clear documentation and transparency around what the expense was for, how it related to Covid, and how much it cost. And so that should be across the board, every department,” said Katrina Foley, the mayor of Costa Mesa and Democratic Party-endorsed candidate for the supervisor seat.

“Being that this is taxpayer dollars and we don’t know where they went or for what purposes is just lack of government…This is a pandemic and we have a right to know. We deserve to know, as citizens,” said Janet Rappaport, an attorney who also is running for the supervisor’s seat.

Voice of OC reached out to all four current supervisors and the five candidates running for the vacant seat. Bartlett, Moorlach, Foley and Rappaport were the only ones to reply.

In response to further questions from Voice of OC, sheriff officials are now answering questions about where the money went – questions they had not been asked publicly by the county supervisors elected to have budgetary oversight over the sheriff.

The vast majority of the $90 million or so was used to pay for salaries and benefits of existing staff at the county jails, said Brian Wayt, the sheriff executive who oversees finance, in an interview with Voice of OC on Wednesday.

“Our CARES Act [funding] – obviously the biggest portion of it went to the jails. And it funded operations within the jail. So it funded deputies, sergeants, [correctional services assistants], [correctional services technicians] that were working inside of the custody environment.”

Wayt said he did not have the dollar breakdowns, but that about 90 percent of the department’s CARES Act spending funded jail staff. The other 10 percent was for the county Emergency Operations Center, which the sheriff runs, as well as the department’s own operations center.

The CARES Act law says the funds can only be used for “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

According to the Treasury guidance, local governments can use CARES Act money to cover employee salaries such as “redeploying corrections facility staff to enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions through work such as enhanced sanitation or enforcing social distancing measures,” and “the costs of redeploying police to support management and enforcement of stay-at-home orders.”

Sheriff officials say the CARES Act money can be used to fund jail staff, because they work in public safety and their jobs have changed substantially due to the pandemic.

“That’s the public safety presumption,” under guidance from the U.S. Department of Treasury, Wayt said.

“That public safety presumption is the presumption that every duty of law enforcement personnel – sworn and civilian – has changed because of Covid. And therefore you can claim 100% of their salary and benefits against the CARES Act,” he added.

The department applied the public safety presumption to have the CARES Act fund jail staff who work directly with inmates, Wayt said.

“The law allows us to basically claim all of their costs, under the presumption that their duties have changed because of Covid.”

In the documents the Sheriff’s Department provided, the expenditures on jail staff are under code “060” and “public safety presumption,” Wayt said, providing clarity that’s not in the records themselves.

A taxpayer advocate says it seems such a presumption is allowed for the federal coronavirus response money.

“I did a little research and found that these reimbursements for [law enforcement] payroll are apparently allowed under the U.S. Treasury’s guidance on how CARES funds may be used,” said Susan Shelley, vice president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

“Under the ‘public safety presumption,’ CARES Act funds may be used to reimburse expenses for public safety personnel who are ‘substantially dedicated’ to the COVID-19 emergency response,” she added.

Sheriff’s Department staff were funded by more CARES Act coronavirus response money than any other department at the County of Orange, including the Health Care Agency, according to county records.

For most of the pandemic, county officials have not publicly disclosed details on how they’ve been spending the $554 million in CARES Act money they received.

Voice of OC’s inquiries into how the spending has itself drawn the ire of the county’s top official. At a public meeting last week, supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do publicly complained that reporters are asking too many questions and requesting too many records.

As for the transparency questions, sheriff officials say they’re providing the actual documents they work with internally that provide lots of details.

Asked about calls for clearer financial disclosure, Wayt said, “At the end of the day, that’s not really up to the Sheriff’s Department. That’s really up to the county and the auditor-controller. Yeah, I get the budget book isn’t the most user-friendly per-se. But at the end of the day, if you know what you’re looking at, you’ll understand it.”

“These are the documents we submit for a claim. If the feds come in and audit our stuff, these are the documents they’re going to look at.”

Others say officials should also provide a simpler and clearer way to track the money.

“It would seem that the simplest way to report how CARES Act funds were spent is to show a column of the actual (normal budgeted) expenditures, then a second column of the expenditures that were subsidized by the funding, with a third column reflecting the combined amounts,” Moorlach said after reviewing the sheriff records.

“An explanation in the footnotes (disclosures) as to how the funds spent fit into the allowable categories would also be helpful.”

The CARES Act money has been spent wisely and followed federal guidelines, according to sheriff officials.

“I think it’s money well spent,” Wayt said.

“And if you look at how our numbers are in the jail, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of mitigating Covid.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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