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Interim LA Sheriff suspends civilian deputy program

Following an ABC7 investigation into the LA Sheriff's field deputy program, new interim Sheriff John Scott suspends the initiative.
January 31, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
Eyewitness News has learned the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is suspending its controversial "field deputy" program.

On his first day as interim sheriff, John Scott is suspending the civilian field deputy program and launching an official inquiry into possible misuse of county funds following an Eyewitness News investigation.

"There are concerns, so Sheriff Scott needs time, and that's why he has the inquiry being conducted, so that he knows where he's going to take it from here," said L.A. Sheriff's Captain Mike Parker.

The news comes one day after an Eyewitness News investigation raised questions about the $171,000 salary of retiring Field Deputy Michael Yamaki.

Yamaki was a senior civilian advisor to former Sheriff Lee Baca. Yamaki had no sheriff's department office, no phone line, and appeared to spend work days at the exclusive Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades. Yamaki is also a longtime friend of Baca and loaned him $20,000 in his first campaign for sheriff. 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 exists.

Yamaki has been identified in numerous articles as the "general manager", "managing corporate officer" and "chief executive" of the Riviera, where the initiation fee is reported to be around $250,000. However, sheriff's department spokesperson Steve Whitmore told Eyewitness News that Yamaki's only job was with the LA County Sheriff's Department. Whitmore says that Yamaki has never been an employee at the Riviera and does not receive a salary, but that he is an investor at the club .

Yamaki's job with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department came 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 another country club, this one in Valencia.

Michael Yamaki refused to speak with Eyewitness News for our story, but we learned through public records that of the $120,000 worth of gifts that Sheriff Baca accepted during his tenure, there are nine rounds of golf paid for by Yamaki, most at the Riviera Country Club.

Yamaki was one of four civilian Field Deputies hired by Sheriff Baca. Tevan Aroustamian made $121,156 a year. Scott Svonkin made $94,712 per year. Bishop Edward Turner made $113,584 yearly. Bishop Turner agreed to resign from his position back in November after our investigation, which raised questions about his activities as a field deputy. He continues to maintain he has done nothing wrong.

Our story also raised questions about the department's handling of a mysterious package of money sent to Turner's church in 2005. The package contained $84,020 in cash. We also raised questions about Turner's business dealings, specifically that he is a landlord to an illegal marijuana dispensary across the street from his church on Manchester Boulevard in South Los Angeles.

No charges have been filed against Turner in connection with the package and Turner denies any wrongdoing in either matter.

The sheriff's department launched its own investigation into Turner after our report aired. Eyewitness News has learned that Turner's computer has since been seized by the department's internal criminal investigations bureau. We have also learned the FBI is asking questions about Bishop Turner.

In addition, our investigation revealed that Bishop Turner's non-profit had lost its tax-exempt status because it had not filed a 990 IRS form since 2009, as required by law. Turner denied all wrongdoing in an interview with Eyewitness News in November 2013. More recently, sheriff's spokesperson Steve Whitmore told us that despite Turner's retirement, the investigation into Turner's conduct will continue, at Turner's request.

In an interview with Eyewitness News Anchor Marc Brown, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is responding to our investigation.

"It may be necessary for us to order an audit of the sheriff's department and have independent eyes look at some of these very serious internal matters," said Ridley-Thomas.

Thomas says major changes to the position of sheriff itself may be needed.

"There's a big debate as to whether or not this should be an elected office in the first place," he said.

Ridley-Thomas says if the sheriff remains an elected position, the supervisors should look at potential term limits. The primary election for a new sheriff is in June.

Contact the producer of this investigation: Lisa.Bartley@abc.com


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