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ACLU alleges Riverside County misspent $4.6 million in ...

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Riverside County misspent more than $4.6 million in federal


relief funding on furniture, door keypads, cameras and bulletproof windows for the Sheriff’s Department, complaints filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and several local groups allege.

The complaints filed Friday, July 30, ask the federal government to recover the CARES Act money “so that (it) may be reallocated to programs and services that respond to the public health emergency caused by COVID-19,” read

the complaint to the U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general


“CARES Act funds are intended to support community members struggling with the economic and health impacts of the pandemic,” Adrienna Wong, ACLU Southern California senior staff attorney, said in a news release.

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“Redirecting those funds to pad law enforcement budgets hampers recovery efforts, disregards the suffering in our communities and, in this case, violates the law.”

County spokeswoman Brooke Federico said via email the county’s CARES Act funding team reviewed departments’ spending requests to make sure they were eligible for CARES Act dollars.

“The sheriff’s projects, specifically, ensured appropriate physical distancing and safety, while reducing contact and decreasing the risk of transmission within congregate inmate settings and among essential personnel,” Federico said.

In an emailed statement, Sheriff Chad Bianco said Friday that “three completely anti-law enforcement (and particularly) anti-Sheriff’s Department … organizations have made more frivolous complaints and are counting on anti-law enforcement media to fuel their demands for social justice.”

“The county of Riverside had an exhausting process for distribution of CARES Act funding and I am extremely confident the process ensured the county operated within federal government guidelines,” the sheriff added.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco has defended the use of federal COVID-19 dollars to upgrade cameras and door keypads at sheriff’s facilities. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

At the May 25 Board of Supervisors meeting, Bianco defended using COVID-19 funds to upgrade cameras and door keypads at sheriff’s facilities. The county’s undersheriff told supervisors the office upgrades would replace old flooring and reduce the risk of viral infection.

“Our deputies are in there hundreds of times a day through the main door,” he told supervisors. “Hundreds of times a day, with inmates, without inmates, contaminating other people. So we worked very very diligently with the executive office to come up with funding for this.”

Bianco noted the pandemic forced the closure of sheriff’s stations to the public last year. With the new cameras, “if we ever did have to go to a lockdown again where we’re not going to let (people) in (sheriff’s facilities), we can engage with them outside through the camera system, through the speaker systems ... ” he said in May.

Riverside County

received $487 million last year — $431 million directly

, $56 million through the state — from the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress and signed by then-President Donald Trump in March 2020.

Supervisors used the money, which is separate from

the $479 million the county expects to receive from the American Rescue Plan

relief bill passed this March, to cover county departments’ COVID-19-related expenses,

a move that buoyed a county budget

that was initially expected

to take a body blow from the pandemic


Among other priorities, CARES Act funding also paid for personal protective equipment for health care workers; office partitions, telework equipment and other tools to promote social distancing by employees; shelter for the homeless

and aid for struggling small businesses and renters

unable to pay their landlords because the pandemic took away their jobs or work hours.

In the past year, the five elected county supervisors have resisted pressure from activists

who want less money spent on law enforcement

and more devoted to social programs and helping the homeless and disadvantaged. Joining in the ACLU’s complaints are the Corona-based Starting Over Inc. and Riverside All of Us or None, groups that advocate for criminal justice reform and have sought to divert funding from the sheriff.

“The projects proposed by the Sheriff’s Department have nothing to do with COVID-19 and the harm it has caused in our communities,” Shaun LeFlore, a Riverside All of Us or None organizer, said in the ACLU’s release.

The complaint to the treasury department focuses on three CARES Act-funded items unanimously approved by supervisors. According to county reports, the money funded:

$1.3 million to upgrade key cards and video cameras

$669,000 for bulletproof window glazing and perimeter security improvements

$2.7 million for “lighting, flooring, cabinets, office furniture and equipment” at sheriff’s facilities

Money from the sheriff’s budget also paid for those items.

In each instance, the projects do not meet federal rules for how CARES Act money can be spent, the ACLU argues.

“Swiping a key card instead of turning a physical key does not substantially reduce employees’ contact with door handles or other office objects, such that this technology does not improve the Sheriff’s Department’s control of COVID-19 spread,” the complaint read. “Additionally, installing an upgraded camera system does nothing to minimize office staff’s exposure to sick staff or visitors.”

Related links

How Riverside County plans to spend $431M in coronavirus dollars

How Riverside County plans to spend $479 million in coronavirus relief money

Effort to defund Riverside County Sheriff’s Department continues amid new budget

Riverside County budget to include $5.5 million for deputy patrols

Why Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco wants $18 million more in funding

Installing bulletproof glass to protect against active shooters “is not a new cost undertaken” to fight the pandemic and bulletproof glazing doesn’t reduce the virus’s spread, the ACLU argues.

Regarding the $2.7 million item, Undersheriff Dennis Vrooman told supervisors June 8 that the project would replace surfaces in jail and coroner’s facilities that are highly susceptible to bacterial viral infections.

“If we replace them, it’s less likely that we have the spread of disease and things like that in those facilities for both the inmates and our staff,” Vrooman said.

The ACLU disputes that. “Replacing floors, furniture and cabinetry is similarly unrelated to public health, as this proposal does not reduce staff members’ contact with these surfaces,” the complaint read.

“Furthermore, improving Sheriff’s Department office facilities does not assist with providing healthcare services, aiding businesses, or supporting individuals suffering from the economic fallout of the pandemic.”

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