By Patrick McGreevy
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Amid budget shortfalls, the Los Angeles Police Department has sparked controversy by asking Philip Morris USA to donate $50,000 to help pay for an investigation into counterfeiting of its cigarettes.
In a letter to the company, Police Chief William J. Bratton said the department was requesting the funds to help defray the costs of an ongoing investigation into the "illicit manufacture, transport, distribution or sale of Philip Morris USA products." The LAPD would be in control of the probe.
"The Los Angeles Police Department acknowledges that Philip Morris USA, in providing these funds, is not attempting to influence in any way the outcome of any investigation," Bratton wrote to the company.
Some ethics watchdogs criticized the request, saying it raises fairness concerns about whether wealthy crime victims should be allowed to pay for police protection that poor victims would not be able to afford.
"Presumably this investigation would help Philip Morris because it would take cheaper knockoff cigarettes off the market," said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "It raises the unfortunate possibility that police are asking citizens and businesses to pay extra for protection, which raises concerns about whether better services go to those who can afford to pay."
Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, also questioned the police solicitation of funding.
The cigarette maker has written a check for the investigation, and City Council members are scheduled to decide today whether it should be accepted. The Police Commission has already endorsed the donation.
Commission President John Mack said he saw no problem with the donation, noting the investigation would have been conducted with or without it and was underway before money was requested.
"I feel comfortable that the department can handle that in an ethical way, and can conduct the investigation in an objective and fair manner," Mack said. "I don't think the department is catering to a major corporation."
A representative of Philip Morris did not return a call for comment, but the director of its Brand Integrity Department said in a letter to Bratton that he approved the funding "to support an ongoing criminal investigation into the illicit sale of stolen and/or counterfeit Philip Morris USA cigarettes."
LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell also saw nothing wrong with the request from a corporate crime victim to help pay for the investigation.
He said there was no quid pro quo involved that would guarantee an outcome of the investigation in exchange for the money. The probe will not just benefit Philip Morris, he said.
"The people doing that counterfeiting are doing other kinds of counterfeiting and crime," McDonnell said.
Supporters say the money is not benefiting anyone in the LAPD financially, but is paying to make the city safer.
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LAPD asks Philip Morris for $50K to help fund probe of counterfeit cigarettes