Dozens of employees reportedly put thousands of hours of unworked overtime on their time sheets for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, leading to almost $200,000 in unauthorized compensation over a five-year period.

That’s the conclusion of an audit that was released by the Arizona Auditor General on Thursday and referred to the Attorney General’s Office “for appropriate action.”

“Our investigation revealed that from June 2013 through September 2018, the former sheriff and captain may have violated state laws related to misuse of public monies and solicitation of forgery when they illicitly authorized $196,842 of compensation by directing 77 Sheriff’s Office employees to record 7,220 hours of unworked overtime on their time sheets,” the auditor’s office wrote in the report.

Antonio Estrada was the sheriff during the time period studied in the audit and Ruben Fuentes was the department’s captain.

The Sheriff’s Office is now under the command of Sheriff David Hathaway, who won the job in last November’s general election after Estrada decided not to run for an eighth term. Fuentes stepped down just days after Hathaway took over, but the new sheriff praised Fuentes for his work and said he had not been “removed ‘for cause.’”

The overtime issue came to light in 2018, and county officials told Estrada to stop the practice.

“Overtime hours not actually worked are being utilized as employee compensation. This form of compensation is not approved by the board of supervisors and is not permissible,” County Manager Jennifer St. John told Estrada in an email dated Oct. 4, 2018, which was obtained by the NI following a public records request.

For his part, Estrada said at the time that county management knew about the practice and accepted it as a way to compensate employees who performed additional duties. He said the practice had been going on for two decades.

“We burdened these employees with extra duties that went above and beyond the scope of their job description and we felt obligated to compensate that. By no means was this a gift. It was exactly fair compensation,” Estrada told the NI in 2018.

At the time, St. John questioned Estrada about overtime hours reported by 11 employees during a single pay period in 2018.

The recently completed audit reveals that the practice was widespread and occurred over a number of years. The 77 employees who reportedly submitted a total of 2,002 false time sheets during the period studied included sworn officers, detention officers, dispatch officers and an office specialist. The audit report states that the sheriff and captain oversaw about 80 employees during fiscal year 2020.

The report states that employees were told by supervisors to claim an hour of overtime each day they performed duties beyond their pay grade.

The auditors only reviewed documents dating back to 2013, but Estrada reportedly confirmed to investigators that the practice of providing compensation for special duties through unworked overtime began around 2000.

“He (Estrada) also stated that county management had not prioritized public safety and claimed that if special duty compensation was requested, the board of supervisors would respond that there were no resources or budget available,” the report states.

The report also states that the former sheriff and captain “may have concealed the practice” from county management.

Estrada didn’t immediately return a call from the NI on Thursday seeking comment, and on Friday referred all questions to his lawyer.

But in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Estrada denied personally profiting from the overtime practice and said he believed county officials didn’t adequately fund law enforcement.

“It was in consideration of what I thought was fair for some of the responsibilities that people were doing above and beyond what we expected of them,” he told the AP in regard to the extra payments.

Fuentes could not be reached for comment and Hathaway, the current sheriff, declined to comment on the audit.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office offered no comment when asked about any action the office planned to take regarding the case.

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