10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, July 16, 2011

By IMRAN GHORI
The Press-Enterprise

Among the more than 400 retirees who receive six-figure pensions from the San Bernardino County Employees’ Retirement Association are three former Sheriff’s Department officials accused of falsifying training records to boost their income.

One of them, Michael Stodelle, a retired assistant sheriff, receives the third-highest pension of more than 8,800 retirees who receive benefits from the association, according to data the association provided last week after losing a year-long legal battle with The Press-Enterprise.

Stodelle, a 36-year county employee who retired in 2006, receives an annual pension of $254,640, about $80,000 more than the maximum salary now listed for that position on the county’s human resources website.

The two others are retired Capt. Hobart Gray and retired Lt. William Maddox. Gray’s pension is $121,797 and Maddox’s is $106,415. Both amounts are similar to the salaries for their former positions. Gray, a 24-year veteran of the department, retired in 2009. Maddox put in 26 years before retiring last year.

Authorities have said they are seeking the return of any stolen money, including the possible rollback of pensions to account for any falsified training records that would have boosted their pay and pensions.

The three men have denied the charges. Their attorneys say they earned their pensions legally.

“Bill’s pension is absolutely 100 percent earned,” said Michael Scafiddi, Maddox’s attorney. “Bill has worked tirelessly for 20-plus years to defend the citizens of San Bernardino County from wrong.”

Stodelle’s attorney, Stephen Levine, said if there’s any criticism over the amount, it should be directed toward the Board of Supervisors that approved employee benefits.

“He was a long-term employee with the county who put in a considerable amount of time in a stellar career,” Levine said. “My opinion is he probably earned every dime of it.”

A grand jury in early March issued indictments of the three retired officials and four current sheriff’s employees. They are accused of multiple felony counts of perjury, grand theft and conspiracy. The other four defendants — training specialist Angela Gray, Cpl. Detective David Pichotta, Lt. Russell Wilke and custody specialist Sallyann Christian — have been on paid leave since they were charged.

All have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to return to court on Aug. 26 for a hearing.

Classes Boost Pay

Prosecutors allege that Angela Gray — who is married to Hobart Gray — and Christian, who worked at the sheriff’s training academy, falsified attendance records to indicate that Pichotta, Maddox, Wilke, Stodelle and Hobart Gray completed courses they didn’t attend.

The courses allowed them to earn credits and receive certificates credentialed by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST. The county’s contract with sheriff’s employees promises them pay increases when they move up in certification level.

County employees’ pensions are calculated on a formula that includes factors such as age at retirement, years of service and their highest year of pay, which can include unused vacation and sick leave and car and cell phone allowances.

At the March news conference announcing the charges, Sheriff Rod Hoops and District Attorney Mike Ramos both said they would seek the return of stolen funds.

“We owe it to the citizens of San Bernardino County to go after any the monies that were allegedly inappropriately obtained,” Hoops said then.

Prosecutors typically seek restitution in cases of theft or fraud if a defendant is convicted. Deputy District Attorney Dan Silverman said it’s in that phase of the case that any recovery of damages could take place.

“If there is a loss to SBCERA, if there is a loss to the county, then it’s part of the prosecutor’s duty to seek restitution for that loss,” he said.

At the news conference, Ramos said the alleged theft amounts ranged from $3,000 to as much as $100,000 when retirement benefits are factored in.

Silverman said Thursday that his office has a forensic accountant going through thousands of pages of documents to determine the exact loss.

Closer Training Scrutiny

Since the announcement of the charges, sheriff’s officials said they have taken numerous steps to prevent fraud, including requiring multiple verification of attendance at POST classes by instructors. Sheriff’s employees who take classes also need approval from their supervisors, who will determine whether the courses relate to their duties, Miller said. That paperwork also needs to be signed off so that employees have approval to be away from their normal duties when attending classes, she said.

“Everyone in the sheriff’s office encourages furthering your education, as long as it’s relevant to your position or the position you hope to hold in the future,” Miller said.

During grand jury proceedings in February, a sheriff’s investigator testified that Stodelle, Hobart Gray and Maddox, who were in management positions, racked up credits for classes that had no bearing on their positions. In one case, Gray was signed up for a course to help sheriff’s supervisors — a course he also had taught, according to testimony by Lt. Stephen Dorsey.

Some of the timing of the courses also didn’t make any sense, Dorsey said. During a five-month period starting in late 2000, Stodelle is listed as taking nine courses, Dorsey said.

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