When Jerry Powers left Stanislaus County to take over Los Angeles County's probation department in January, he knew he'd be managing 25 times the number of employees he managed here, and juggling a budget 30 times larger.
He ran his department here so well that his job possibilities included the Stanislaus County chief executive officer position, as well as the LA job he ultimately accepted.
Powers arrived in LA to find a department filled with hard-working, dedicated employees. He also found that a ridiculous number of employees 650 out of 6,200 had ongoing workers compensation claims for job-related injuries.
Yes, he had dealt with the issue here, as well, he said. But there, the number of employees being paid to stay home while their co-workers worked harder was way out of line, Powers determined.
He decided to find out who among them had legitimate injuries and who didn't. He created an internal task force to begin reviewing each workers comp case talking to the employees, their physicians and others.
Since January, authorities including the FBI have arrested 39 LA probation employees for alleged crimes and misdeeds including fraud, drugs and DUIs, all the way up to attempted murder.
"That's about one each week," Powers told me in a phone chat Wednesday.
A story Monday in the Los Angeles Daily News detailed the most recent case, the FBI's arrest of a former state assemblyman who later became an LA County probation officer. They busted him for purporting to be an identity-theft victim while stealing from financial institutions.
Powers said there will be more arrests as the task force sifts through the remaining cases. While many of the claims are legitimate, he said, others are not.
"And that just makes my blood boil," he said.
Was workers comp fraud a problem he also had to clean up when he ran Stanislaus County's Probation Department from 2002 until 2011?
"No," Power said. "It's more of a problem within this (LA) agency. But we struggled with (claims in Stanislaus County). Public safety is always on the high end because of what we do. Probation, the sheriff have higher auto accident and injury rates. When the budget gets tight, everything gets magnified. You don't have the ability to pay the overtime, so you start clamping down in every corner. You look at these people you're paying and not getting production from. Are there accommodations we can make to get them back to work?"
For every officer like Mike Remmel, the California Highway Patrol officer in Jamestown who couldn't wait to return to work on two prosthetic legs, others milk the system to avoid returning to active duty.
Powers remembers commiserating at times with former Stanislaus County Sheriff Les Weidman and current Sheriff Adam Christianson about the issue. Unlike Christianson here, though, Powers said the term "limp, lame and lazy" hasn't been part of the discussion in his LA department.
The phrase came to light during the recent civil lawsuit against Stanislaus County brought by former deputy Dennis Wallace, who alleged discrimination after he was forced out of his job in 2011. The trial ended with a hung jury, and the phrase became a source of controversy, generating a spate of letters to the editor in The Bee.
Christianson testified during the trial that he used the phrase out of frustration when dealing with staff reductions forced by budget cuts, and he later apologized publicly.
Powers who still calls Modesto home and reads The Bee said he knew immediately the phrase would be problematic. "I kind of winced when I read that," Powers said. "I thought, 'That's not going to play well.' Adam doesn't need me to defend him, but I certainly understand the frustration that would lead you to say something. It's nothing personal against a particular employee. It's just frustrating."
By creating the task force in LA and letting his employees know where he stands on workers comp fraud, Powers said the hard-working employees voiced or typed their approval.
"It upsets them when they see people who aren't of the same motivation," he said. "After each of the arrests, I've had e-mail for days on end saying, 'Keep it up, Chief.' "
And nothing he dealt with in Stanislaus County can match his favorite LA story.
"There was a (probation) staff member who was off duty for several years on an injury claim," Powers said. "And throughout that same time, he was being paid as a stunt person in Hollywood in the movies."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.