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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

Phantom Freelancers at the L.A. Times?   

The paper's editorial business manger is charged with stealing $800,000 from his employer.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

The paper's editorial business manger is charged with stealing $800,000 from his employer.

Beginning as a copy boy in 1963, Charles Boesch worked his way up to editorial business director of the Los Angeles Times, supervising an annual budget of $100 million.

Boesch became the trusted go to guy whenever editors needed money outside their allotted budget, ultimately deciding yes or no. If Boesch's boss, former Editor Shelby Coffey III, were contemplating opening a foreign bureau, it was Boesch he would consult to determine whether it was financially feasible.

"Charlie really had control of editorial spending; he had a lot of power," says Carol Stogsdill, a former Times senior editor and vice president. "Charlie could make things happen. And because Shelby would often defer to him, he could make it or break it for you."

He may have had too much power and freedom, according to the Los Angeles district attorney. On November 12 Boesch was arrested and charged with stealing nearly $800,000 from his employer in an elaborate scheme between October 17, 1993 and January 29, 1997 in which he allegedly paid phony freelancers for stories that were never commissioned and never appeared in the paper.

Boesch had been fired in July for "serious professional misconduct," although the paper refused to provide any details at the time. The Times, which might have published a front page article if a Los Angeles County official was charged with stealing $800,000, ran an eight-paragraph story after Boesch's arrest, inside the metro section. It gave no information beyond that provided by the district attorney's press release.

At age 53, and after a virtual lifetime with the Times, Boesch is unable to post the $800,000 bond. At press time, he was in module 3,600 of Los Angeles County's central jail.

"I worked 33 years for the Los Angeles Times," Boesch wrote in a press release. "During that period I saved the company untold millions of dollars. I gave my heart, mind, body and soul to the paper until the pressures and stress of the Los Angeles Times' hypocrisies and inconsistencies caused me to have a breakdown.

"It was like working in the twilight zone where you never knew what was fact or fiction," he added. "I cooperated and assisted in a private investigation conducted by a private agency contracted by the Los Angeles Times. I was assured no charges would be brought against me. I feel betrayed, hurt and confused by these charges brought against me."

According to Deputy District Attorney Brent Collier, Boesch was dealing in fiction. Collier says Boesch approved bogus invoices for nonexistent freelance articles for various sections of the paper, forwarding them to accounting for payment.

The "freelancers," Collier says, included Boesch's former son-in-law Michael Wayne Coburn, 27, and two other associates.

"Every editor of every section had to get payment approval for freelance articles through Boesch," says Collier. "So he created all these fraudulent invoices and attached summaries of what the articles were about.

"This summer the former editor, Shelby Coffey, began looking at the summaries," he says. "They did a preliminary audit. Coffey could see that these articles were never run in the Los Angeles Times."

How could Boesch have allegedly embezzled for four years without being caught? Says Coffey: "I can't discuss anything about Charlie Boesch because that's an internal personnel matter."

According to several sources who worked with Boesch, he had been an affable, easy to get along with man until a few years ago, when his behavior dramatically changed. (Boesch has told L.A. Weekly in a jailhouse interview that he started using cocaine.)

Boesch began coming into work late, disappearing for hours and becoming difficult to find when he was needed on a budget matter.

"It's my impression," says Collier, "he fell apart. His lifestyle changed dramatically. It's an interesting question of how it could have gone on for four years without anyone noticing."

People noticed changes in Boesch, but nothing happened until he stopped coming to work between January and March 1997.