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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Charity Trouble

By Ernie Stephens

Earlier this year, the high sheriff of Stanislaus County (Calif.) caught some heat for allowing his helicopters to participate in several charitable events that were either outside of the county proper, or involved organizations that were not entities of the county government. One such event occurred on May 15 at the Saddle Creek Resort, just 4 n.m. inside of neighboring Calaveras County.

Apparently, a private helicopter normally chartered for the annual Make Dreams Real event had mechanical problems, and was not able to help with the golf ball drop. A golf ball drop is like a raffle ticket drawing, except people purchase a numbered golf ball, and the winner is chosen by whichever ball ends up in the hole after a bucket of them is dumped out over the green from a hovering chopper. The winning ball gains its owner a prize, and the rest of the money goes to the charity.

Upon hearing that the private helicopter was unavailable, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson donated the services of one of his department’s Bell 206s to take its place, and the drop went off as planned. But there was a problem.

A county policy says that sheriff helicopters are to be used for law enforcement and public safety operations. It goes on to say that aircraft may be used for other government purposes if approved in advance by the county’s CEO or designee. Well, Christianson didn’t ask anyone for approval.

As you know, sheriffs are elected officials. So, even if one gets caught eating his salad with the wrong fork, his political opponents will want him shot at sunrise. This case is no different. Citizens, political adversaries and even one of Christianson’s own deputies, who is said to have aspirations of running for the office of sheriff, said he was way out of line helping the charities with his helicopters. There are even accusations that he was courting political backers, but that’s a standard allegation in these kinds of situations.

At issue is whether or not Christianson can use an official aircraft for what all sides agree were worthy charities that help Stanislaus County residents without asking permission, even though the causes were commendable, the helicopter’s participation helped raise a lot of money, and the cost to the county was negligible. He said it was a law enforcement function, but his opponents said it wasn’t.

Whether or not using the county’s helicopters for charitable events without the approval of the county CEO was a violation became the subject of review by a grand jury procedure the county can use to identify internal wrongdoing.

So, the grand jury reviewed the use of the department’s helicopter for the period between July 2008 and August 2013. At its conclusion, it determined that there was no wrongdoing on the part of Christianson because the charities assisted at-risk youths. And since assisting at-risk youth could help reduce crime, the spirit of the policy was not violated. It went on to say that an elected county sheriff is in a unique position in relation to the authority of the county’s CEO and board of supervisors, because while they are responsible for the sheriff’s budget, the sheriff is only accountable to the voters for how best to utilize it.

The grand jury in Stanislaus County said one more thing. It suggested that future uses of the helicopter for charitable events inside or outside of the county be approved in advance by two senior managers from the Sheriff’s Department, or one senior manager each from the Sheriff’s Department and the county CEO’s office.

With all due respect to the members of the Stanislaus grand jury, I have a better idea. I think all law enforcement agencies that use helicopters should review their policies to see exactly what they say about using aircraft and personnel for charitable events. (After all, how many times do we actually look at those policies after being assigned to the unit?) If the wording about charitable events isn’t clear, it may be time to specifically mention them with some clear dos and don’ts, not just because of possible political fallout, but because if something tragic happens, the victims attorneys will come up with their own interpretation of the policy when they seek damages. And you can guess how that will shake out.


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