Santa Cruz County Sheriff Estrada, Top Aide May Have Committed Financial Crimes

santa cruz sheriff
Santa Cruz Sheriff Tony Estrada [Photo courtesy Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office]

The Arizona Auditor General issued a report last week indicating former Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada and one of his former top aides may have violated state laws on the use of public monies and engaged in the solicitation of fraud.

The Auditor General found that Estrada’s administration approved $196,000 in pay to employees for unworked overtime.

Estrada, a Democrat, claims he committed the fraud because officials in the democrat-controlled Santa Cruz County failed to adequately fund law enforcement, according to an AP report.

Although we did not request records for earlier time periods, the sheriff confirmed that his practice of providing employees additional compensation for special duties through unworked overtime began approximately 13 years earlier, in 2000,” wrote the Auditor General. “He also
stated that County management had not prioritized public safety and claimed that if special duty compensation was requested, the Board of Supervisors would respond that there were no resources or budget available.”

“Under the sheriff’s and captain’s direction, Sheriff’s Office supervisors and command staff instructed employees to claim 1 hour of overtime each day they performed duties beyond their pay grade,” noted the Auditor General.

Specifically, 77 employees did not work the claimed overtime hours. They signed 2,002 timesheets falsely certifying, “I verify that this summary and overtime claim is accurate.”

Supervisors signed each timesheet, falsely certifying “concurrence and verification that this overtime claim is accurate,” according to the Auditor General.

The sheriff confirmed with the Auditor General that “every officer and every supervisor who signed a falsified timesheet did so only because of his administration’s instructions.”

Report highlights:

Although the sheriff and captain claimed certain County officials were aware of the Sheriff’s Office practice of paying employees for unworked overtime, our investigation did not corroborate this assertion. In fact, 2016 and 2018 employment records revealed that the sheriff and captain may have concealed from County officials their practice of paying employees for unworked overtime by failing to include compensation amounts in certain Letters of Appointment.

Specifically, even though the Board of Supervisors did not approve filling an open lieutenant position, the sheriff and captain appointed 2 sergeants, 1 in 2016 and 1 in 2018, to assume those duties and compensated them with pay for unworked overtime hours. The captain did not mention any compensation in the 2 Letters of Appointment that he issued to each employee and copied to the sheriff and respective personnel files. In contrast, in 2018 when the sheriff and captain appointed a deputy to a patrol sergeant position that was approved by the Board of Supervisors, the captain documented the compensation amount in that employee’s Letter of Appointment.

Moreover, in October 2018, the County manager emailed the sheriff informing him that it had come to her attention the Sheriff’s Office had been compensating employees with overtime hours not actually worked and that the practice was not approved by the Board of Supervisors, was not permissible, and should be discontinued immediately. However, the Sheriff’s Office failed to comply with this directive. Rather, the day after the County manager’s email, the captain emailed command staff, the office manager, and the sheriff writing, “The Sheriff is asking that we proceed as usual until he gives us other instructions.” Nonetheless, the County manager halted the practice the following week, notifying impacted employees through email and signed letters.

Likewise, a former County manager told us he was unaware of the Sheriff’s Office paying employees for unworked overtime. Another former County manager told us and reported in an affidavit that was provided to us that he was aware of the Sheriff’s Office paying employees for on-call hours, but he did not disclose any knowledge of the Sheriff’s Office paying employees for unworked overtime.

Lastly, all 3 Board of Supervisors members as of February 2019, with their combined 30 years of County service, reported to us that they either thought it was fraud or they were not aware of these overtime payments and the sheriff had never mentioned them. Board of Supervisors’ meeting minutes from January 1993 through September 2018 show that the Sheriff’s Office practice of paying employees for unworked overtime was never discussed.

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