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Highly paid sheriff's field deputy's duties, accomplishments unclear

A highly paid sheriff's field deputy and longtime friend of Sheriff Baca retired Thursday. His duties remain unclear.
January 30, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
Embattled Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca stepped down from the department he's led for 15 years on Thursday. Three of Sheriff Baca's four civilian "field deputies" are retiring with him. You may not know their names, but you have been paying their salaries: a combined half-million dollars in taxpayer money last year alone.

Eyewitness News brought you the story of one of these field deputies, Bishop Edward Turner, who was relieved of duty based on our investigation.

Michael Yamaki is a highly paid field deputy and longtime friend of Sheriff Baca who also retired Thursday. L.A. County taxpayers have been paying Yamaki $171,000 a year.

Yamaki loves the game of golf. He's appeared on the Golf Channel's "Golf Central" TV program leading a tour of the legendary Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, where stars like Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg hit the links. And the initial fee just to join the club will set you back a reported $250,000.

Yamaki has been identified in various publications as the "general manager," the "managing corporate officer" and "chief executive" of the Riviera Country Club.

So we wondered: Is he holding down two jobs?

"No he doesn't," said sheriff's departments spokesman Steve Whitmore. "The only job he has is working for the sheriff's department. He's an investor. But he doesn't have a job there. The only job he has is the L.A. County Sheriff's Department."

Whitmore says Yamaki's official title with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department is "executive assistant," a senior civilian advisor to Sheriff Baca. It's a position he's held since 2005, and his current salary is $171,931 a year.

"I believe that it's money well spent," said Whitmore. "His duty is to interface with the residents of L.A. County, of business community, of political. He raises money for the Sheriff's Youth Foundation."

Yamaki is a politically connected attorney who loaned Baca $20,000 back in 1998 during Baca's first campaign for sheriff.

Yamaki's job with the sheriff's department comes with a county car, which we spotted driving into and out of the Riviera Country Club on three occasions. On yet another day, we spotted Yamaki driving that same county car to yet another golf course, the Valencia Country Club.

Asked if Yamaki should be driving a county car to the Riviera Country Club, Whitmore said: "Well, especially if he's on county time and he's got county duties that he's engaged in, absolutely, because he does a lot of interviewing there, other people that want to bring something to the sheriff's department."

When Eyewitness News filed a Public Records Act request asking for Yamaki's work calendars and a description of his job, we were told that neither of those things exist.

Whitmore told us that Yamaki has never been employed at the Riviera, that he is a non-salaried officer.

Michael Yamaki refused to speak with Eyewitness News about this story and we couldn't get in to see him, because the Riviera is a very private club. But we were able to learn from public records that of the $120,000 worth of gifts Sheriff Baca has received since taking office, there were nine rounds of golf paid for by Yamaki, most at the Riviera Country Club.

"What is this person doing? I think the taxpayers have a right to know," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specialized in government ethics and campaign law.

"The government has to be accountable and public officials have to be accountable and the people that they hire have to be accountable," said Levinson.

Whitmore was unable to provide us with any specifics of what Yamaki has accomplished for the sheriff's department in his nine years on the job.

When pressed, Whitmore directed us to a newspaper article from 2006 that refers to a deal Yamaki negotiated to allow sheriff's vehicles to use local businesses' parking lots in emergencies.

"I think it's completely fair for us to ask: What are you getting your salary for? Why don't you have an office? Why don't you have a telephone number? Why do you have a county-paid car?" said Levinson. "There has to be some accountability."

Three of Baca's four field deputies are "retiring" with him, including Michael Yamaki. But those positions still exist and can be filled by the next sheriff.

Eyewitness News reached out to our other local sheriff departments to see if they have similar highly paid, civilian "field deputy" positions that come with a county car. They do not.

Contact the producer of this investigation: lisa.bartley@abc.com


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