Stanislaus County sheriff's use of copter wrong?

kcarlson@modbee.comJune 27, 2013 

    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
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Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson is facing questions again about the use of a department helicopter for purposes other than law enforcement — this time for a charity fund-raiser outside the county.

A county-owned helicopter took part in the Make Dreams Real event May 15 at Saddle Creek Resort in Copperopolis in Calaveras County, which raised money to send schoolchildren to sixth-grade camp and other outdoor education programs.

Carl Boyett, head of Boyett Petroleum in Modesto, is the founder of the charity, which is dedicated to stimulating the minds of Stanislaus County children.

No one doubts the charity is a good cause. But the helicopter's use for a golf ball drop over the course may have run afoul of a strict county policy adopted in 2005 and designed to make sure the aircraft are used for proper purposes.

The county launched a probe that year after a sheriff's helicopter, other equipment and deputies were posed for a catalog photo shoot for 5.11 Tactical, a business that makes police uniforms. Christianson, then a lieutenant who oversaw the Air Support Unit, was criticized for an email telling deputies to show up for the photo shoot.

Under former Sheriff Les Weidman, the department's aircraft had been used for other purposes, such as shuttling sheriff's officials to meetings and even to ferry wine to a social function at the Diablo Grande resort.

A county-hired outside investigator concluded the catalog shoot was a misuse of county property and violated county policies by using public resources for the benefit of a private company. Dan Costa, who was then owner of 5.11 Tactical, agreed to pay an additional $2,755 to reimburse the county, above an original $532 bill.

County leaders took action with a firm policy specifying that the county-owned aircraft be used only for law enforcement and emergency services, and never for commercial purposes or to benefit a private business.

A broader policy concerning county-owned vehicles — from aircraft to boats, motorcycles and trucks — restricts their use to county business and work activities.

County Chief Executive Officer Monica Nino said this week she was reviewing the use of the helicopter at the Calaveras County event and talking with Christianson about the policy. Other officials offered measured comments given the fact that money was raised to send children to camp.

County Supervisor Terry Withrow called it a well-intentioned mistake. "The sheriff's heart was in the right place, but the helicopter probably should not have been used that way. Technically, it is not correct," he said.

Supervisor Dick Monteith said he wanted to know more of the facts. The county needs to maintain a sound policy so that equipment is used for proper purposes, he said. "We are for nonprofit organizations, but we are responsible for the expenditure of the people's money," Monteith said.

Operating the helicopter costs hundreds of dollars an hour for fuel, salary costs and other expenses. Christianson did not discuss what arrangements were made with Boyett to use the helicopter at the fund-raiser.

In a written statement, the sheriff said, "we partner with many community based organizations, nonprofits and others to raise money for education. Our flights supporting community-based organizations coincide with regularly scheduled patrol or training flight operations."

When asked if the Sheriff's Department was reimbursed for fuel or other costs, Christianson responded, "There are no reimbursable expenses. We don't offer flight-for-hire services."

Boyett did not return messages from The Bee.

Deputy Tom Letras, who will seek the sheriff's job in next year's election, called the fund-raiser an excellent and worthwhile cause, but the taxpayers ended up footing the bill.

"The sheriff does not have a right to say what charity taxpayers are going to support or not support," Letras said. "One of the reasons I'm running against Sheriff Christianson is he preaches accountability but he is not accountable to the taxpayers and citizens."

Letras suggested that loaning the helicopter for the event polished the sheriff's image for campaign donors and political supporters who attended the event. Before the 2010 election, The Bee reported that Christianson received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Boyett.

As for what happens next, Nino said she did not characterize her review as a formal investigation. Withrow said he is willing to let the matter drop and believes it won't happen again.

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