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ACLU files federal complaint over allocation of COVID relief funds to Riverside County Sheriff’s Dept.

Three organizations, including the ACLU, have filed a federal complaint accusing Riverside County misusing million of dollars meant for COVID relief allocated to the Sheriff's Department

In the complaint addressed to the Department of Treasury, the ACLU accuses the Sheriff's Dept. of misusing millions in COVID relief, including $2.7 million for furniture and other office renovations, another $1.3 million to upgrade its key card/video camera systems, and another $660,000 to bulletproof its windows.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco wrote a statement in response to inquires regarding the ACLU's complaint:

"The fact that only extremely liberal media outlets have inquired about the ACLU’s complaint says all that needs to be said.  Three completely anti law enforcement, anti Sheriff’s Department in particular, 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. This frivolous, misleading, and misinformed complaint should be seen by the pubic for exactly what it is:  Anti law enforcement rhetoric and a complete waste of everyone’s time.  "

The county board of supervisors allocated the funding during meetings in May and June of 2021. The funds come from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that is given to be used for “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency.”

"Instead, in Riverside County, CARES funding is a boondoggle for a sheriff department’s office makeover," reads an announcement by the ACLU.

During the June 8, 2021 board of supervisors meeting discussing the allocation of funds for office renovations, Undersheriff Dennis Vrooman said parts of the projects were brought before the CARES committee where it was determined that they were eligible for CARES funding.

"These projects specifically are for our jail facilities, coroners-bureau, replacing some surfaces that have... are highly susceptible to bacterial, viral infections, and so that's why they are eligible for CARES funding," Vrooman said.

The $5 million project was funded by 50% of CARES act funds and 50% Sheriff's Booking Recovery Fund.

Sheriff Bianco spoke to the Board of Supervisors about the funding for its key card/video camera systems during the May 25, 2021 meeting.

"It certainly is a very good use of CARES Act funding, not only for the deputies, but for the criminals that we are arresting and the inmates that we are housing," Bianco told Supervisors. "You're not gonna give me money to pay somebody to be by our doors to wipe down those key pads every time we use."

Bianco continued, "And then also with the camera systems, is the outside access, if we ever did have to go to a lockdown again, well then we're not going to let them in the building, we can engage with them outside through the camera system, through the speaker systems and we can still take care of our really most vulnerable sick people who are our victims rather than the criminals."

ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Riverside All of Us or None, and Starting Over Inc submitted complaints to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Inspector General, the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

The organizations ask for federal officials to recover the CARES Act funds allocated to the sheriff’s department so they can be reallocated to services and programs specifically related to the pandemic.

“CARES Act funds are intended to support community members struggling with the economic and health impacts of the pandemic,” said ACLU SoCal Senior Staff Attorney Adrienna Wong. “Redirecting those funds to pad law enforcement budgets hampers recovery efforts, disregards the suffering in our communities and, in this case, violates the law.”

“The projects proposed by the sheriff’s department have nothing to do with COVID-19 and the harm it has caused in our communities,” said Shaun LeFlore, an organizer with Riverside All of Us or None. “This funding could go to any number of departments and projects to meaningfully address COVID-19 in our communities, especially among incarcerated people and frontline workers.”

The complaint asks the federal oversight bodies to “recover these funds from Riverside County so that they may be reallocated to programs and services that respond to the public health emergency caused by COVID-19.” 

The organizations also proposed several alternative uses for the CARES funding that they say would be in accord with the act. Their suggestions includes included livable wages for essential workers, healthcare services for Riverside County’s unhoused residents, and vaccine education for the county’s incarcerated population.

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Jesus Reyes

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