Several Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have been entangled in fraud allegations in the last year, a spike that the department's watchdog says may be linked to overtime cuts pushing cash-strapped deputies to commit crimes.

One deputy torched his own car for an insurance payout, another fabricated a burglary and a third enlisted a fellow cop to help him drive his car to Mexico, where he abandoned it and later claimed it was stolen. Two other deputies are facing federal charges in an alleged mortgage fraud scheme, according to the report provided to The Times on Monday by the Office of Independent Review.

Financial crimes committed by deputies in past years were mainly petty theft and other minor infractions, but recently the allegations have become more serious and frequent, said Michael Gennaco, who heads the watchdog agency.

Gennaco said that although deputies receive relatively good pay and benefits, it was reasonable to link the crimes to overtime cuts because many had become accustomed to a standard of living that's not possible without the extra income. Losing that, he said, may have pushed some deputies to pad their salaries illegally.

In one instance, a deputy's car was found burning in a field near his home. He told investigators it must have been stolen, then filed a claim with his insurance company, according to the report. But an expert from his insurance company concluded that the car couldn't have been driven into the field where it was torched without the deputy's enhanced-security car key.

After cellphone records placed the deputy in the field, contradicting his alibi, he was charged with arson, insurance fraud and several other felonies, and eventually received a six-month jail sentence.

According to the report, the deputy had been facing credit card debt and a "substantial mortgage." He resigned in lieu of termination.

"In the good old days, if you wanted to increase your salary by 15 to 20% by working more, you could," Gennaco said. "Suddenly, the faucet gets turned off."

In another case, a deputy's 2005 Cadillac CTS was found in Mexico days after he reported it stolen. His story raised suspicions after an insurance adjustor discovered that the deputy had received an estimate for the damages he claimed resulted from the theft three months before the supposed theft occurred. Investigators then discovered cellphone records showing the deputy heading toward Mexico the night he alleged it was stolen, according to the report. The calls showed a similar route for a fellow law enforcement official, who apparently drove the deputy back after he abandoned his car.

The deputy, Eugene Peter Boese, was charged with several felonies but eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge, according to the report.

Boese's false report, however, came in March 2009, well before the most significant overtime cuts cited in the report. Boese, who has been served with a termination notice, could not be reached for comment.

Two other deputies face federal charges in an alleged out-of-state mortgage fraud scheme. If convicted, one faces up to 45 years in prison and the other up to 105 years, Gennaco said.

In a fourth incident presented in the report, a rookie deputy told a friend who worked at another law enforcement agency that his house had been burglarized the day before. He said he didn't need a unit sent out because he'd already cleaned up the crime scene, but did want a police report listing the "stolen" items to file an insurance claim.

Prompted by the deputy's odd behavior, that agency launched an investigation. He resigned and pleaded no contest to filing a false police report, according to the oversight agency.

The Sheriff's Department, citing personnel constraints, refused to release the names of the deputies -- even though the criminal cases are public record.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore called the link between overtime cuts and more serious financial crimes by deputies anecdotal, but said "an argument can be made."

He called the report "an example of how the department is proactively trying to refocus deputies to live within their means."

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robert.faturechi@latimes.com