Heli Donations Rankle Board

Sheriff Defends Wood-Claeyssens Foundation Gifts

<b>HELP FROM ABOVE:</b> A Sheriff’s Search & Rescue chopper looked for the surviving victim of last week’s paragliding accident.
Paul Wellman

According to tax documents, the anonymous nonprofit that has donated heavily to Project: Rescue Flight, another nonprofit that supports the Sheriff’s Office helicopter squad, is the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, which often gives to public-safety and social-service organizations.

At a February Board of Supervisors meeting, Sheriff Bill Brown requested an after-the-fact approval of $826,065 in donations made to Project: Rescue Flight in the last two years. The funds paid for mechanical work and paint jobs.

But Brown’s late request to accept the money, and the fact that he did so after it had already been spent, attracted the ire of those on the dais and of Auditor-Controller Bob Geis. Their concerns were threefold. First, the sheriff broke county policy ​— ​a policy that county officials outlined in detail at their meeting this week to prevent such errors from reoccurring ​— ​by not earning the board’s approval for a gift greater than $10,000. Second, it’s not okay to record prior-period transactions in the county’s books, Geis said. Finally, the fact that the majority of Project: Rescue Flight’s board of directors were Sheriff’s Office employees raised eyebrows.

County officials pointed to previous instances when the board’s approval policy was adhered to, including a September 2014 request from County Fire to accept $300,000 from the Craig and Susan McCaw foundation and a December 2014 request from the Sheriff’s Office to approve $36,226 for a rural crime truck.

While taking heat from the supervisors, Brown explained that much of Project: Rescue Flight’s money came from another nonprofit that refuses to donate directly to governmental bodies. The supervisors ultimately accepted the $826,065 in gifts, but they and many others called for more transparency. In the weeks that followed, speculation whirred over who the mystery donor could be.

Project: Rescue Flight and its leadership have also been adamant about keeping their big donor a secret. But tax forms filed in 2012 show that Wood-Claeyssens gave $200,000 to the organization on top of two separate checks written in 2011 for $350,000 and $230,000. In tax forms from 2012, Wood-Claeyssens reported assets of $122.4 million and more than $20.8 million in donations made. A request for comment from Wood-Claeyssens wasn’t returned.

“We have made an agreement that we don’t publicize who our donors are, at their request,” said Project: Rescue Flight cofounder Sgt. Gregg Weitzman. “We want to provide the best aircraft to the citizens of Santa Barbara County. We’re just trying to better our agency and our unit.” Without Project: Rescue Flight, Weitzman went on, the county wouldn’t have Copter 3, which the group raised $2.5 million to refurbish after the Sheriff’s Office acquired it from a law-enforcement agency in Colorado in 2004. Their work provides “above and beyond” what the Aviation Support Unit ​— ​which currently has a $464,047 annual budget ​— ​could otherwise afford, he said.

The Sheriff’s Aviation Support Unit, said spokesperson Kelly Hoover, maintains five helicopters, all of which are stationed at the Santa Ynez Airport. Two smaller choppers ​— ​built in 1969 and 1971 and obtained from the military in the mid-1990s ​— ​are primarily used for law-enforcement and search-and-rescue missions, while the larger ones are available for search-and-rescue and firefighting. All of them have several thousand hours of flying time logged.

“The Sheriff’s Office greatly appreciates Project: Rescue Flight and all those who have donated to this 501(c)(3) nonprofit,” said Brown in a prepared statement. “Their extraordinary generosity has been instrumental in helping us obtain and fly a state-of-the-art rescue helicopter that has already helped save many lives.”


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