Stanislaus County CEO finishes helicopter probe

kcarlson@modbee.comJune 28, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    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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    E-mail: kcarlson@modbee.com

— Stanislaus County Chief Executive Officer Monica Nino said Friday she has completed her inquiry into the use of a Sheriff's Department helicopter at a private fund-raising event in Calaveras County.

Nino said Sheriff Adam Christianson has committed to work with the chief executive's office and county counsel to ensure any future use of county resources complies with county policy.

"Once I became aware of the incident, I contacted the sheriff and shared my concerns with using county resources for these types of activities," Nino wrote in an email. "The sheriff has been very cooperative."

The sheriff potentially violated a county policy when he allowed use of the helicopter for the Make Dreams Real charity golf event May 15 at Saddle Creek Resort in Calaveras County. The helicopter was used to drop a bucket of golf balls over the course after donors paid $50 per ball in hope of winning prizes.

According to an online promotion for the annual event, someone also paid $1,500 for the privilege of riding in the sheriff's helicopter to drop the balls over the ninth fairway.

Carl Boyett, a Modesto businessman who organized the charity, clarified Friday that he bought the ride for $1,500 and expects to take it later as a law enforcement ride-along. It remained unclear whether public coffers were reimbursed for the costs of using the helicopter, which include fuel and salaries.

Boyett said he gave a $1,000 donation to the sheriff's air support squadron. Nino said she understood the $1,000 went to a nonprofit group connected with the sheriff's air support unit.

Boyett said Christianson offered use of the helicopter when they talked at a social function a year ago. He said the offer was made after he told the sheriff a private helicopter hired for the 2012 golf fund-raiser failed to show up because of mechanical problems.

In Boyett's estimation, the costs for operating the helicopter at the event did not exceed $1,000. He said he previously was charged $700 by a private helicopter service.

Christianson didn't mention the donation from Boyett when asked Thursday if the county had been reimbursed for fuel or other costs. He wrote in emails there were no reimbursable expenses because helicopter flights done in support of community groups coincide with patrol or training operations. "We don't offer flight-for-hire services," the sheriff wrote.

Deputy Tom Letras, who is running in next year's election for sheriff, said it's clear a sheriff's helicopter ride was sold for the May 15 fund-raiser. The online sales item has pictures of the helicopter and Christianson and "SOLD" stamped over it.

Boyett, who said he never expected the fund-raiser would create an uproar, said a donor who bought a ride on the private aircraft last year, which didn't show up, took the ride in the sheriff's aircraft. A few hundred donors bought balls for the drop; prizes such as a trip to Maui were awarded for the balls that came closest to the hole.

At issue is whether all this is allowed under a stronger county vehicle policy adopted in 2005. The policy states that sheriff's aircraft shall be used only for "law enforcement or emergency-related purposes."

Asked Friday if the sheriff had violated the policy, County Counsel John Doering replied in an email, "Christianson had good reason for assisting the charity's effort to provide enrichment programs for underprivileged youth, which supports his mission to reduce crime in the county by keeping our youth engaged in positive activities."

Doering's statement said the sheriff "understands that use of the helicopter for private fund-raising events can be viewed as an inappropriate use of county resources."

Christianson did not return messages Friday. His statement Thursday said, "We should be working together to make our community a safer place to live, which also includes public-private partnerships that benefit education and serve underprivileged, at-risk young people."

Eight years ago, Christianson was at the center of a controversy over a catalog photo shoot for 5.11 Tactical, a company that makes police uniforms. He was then a lieutenant and oversaw the department's air support unit.

The photos for the catalog included a sheriff's helicopter, mobile command center, a patrol car and deputies. Christianson sent an email telling about a dozen deputies to show up for the photo shoot, though their participation was voluntary, he later said.

A county-hired investigator concluded the catalog photos were a misuse of county property and violated policy by using public resources for the benefit of a private business. County leaders strengthened the vehicle policy to prohibit use of the aircraft for commercial purposes or to benefit private businesses.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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