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L.A. Parking Tickets: Role of Firm Is Questioned

April 29, 1990|PENELOPE McMILLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, when Los Angeles contracted with Datacom Systems Corp. to collect delinquent parking tickets, the company projected it could collect 5% to 10% of the city's unpaid citations.

Now, with unpaid fines reported at nearly $249 million, the company has collected $5.6 million--slightly over 2%--and has not yet resorted to the aggressive ticket collection methods spelled out in the contract.

Some elected officials are asking whether more money could be collected, especially now that the city faces fiscal problems.

Mayor Tom Bradley recently ordered the city's Department of Transportation to report by this week on the status of collection efforts, and some City Council members recently have questioned whether the contractor has done an adequate job.

"Their performance has been inadequate," said Councilman Nate Holden, who chairs the council's Traffic and Transportation Committee.

"Even if we were able to get 20% of $250 million, that's . . . $50 million," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee. "That could go a long way to dealing with our budgetary problems."

City parking officials praise the contractor's collections approach and note that 70% of the tickets written each year are paid.

Much of the outstanding $249 million is uncollectable, parking officials say, because the owners of the ticketed vehicles cannot be identified.

"It's like milking blood out of a turnip," said Jay Carsman, the city's parking ticket coordinator.

Datacom, currently known as Lockheed Information Management Services Co., has been paid $32 million to process the city's parking tickets since 1985 and has received at least $1.3 million more to collect delinquent tickets in the last year. The contract comes up for renewal later this year.

Lockheed already has come under fire for its ticket collection efforts in Los Angeles. Last year, the city received a storm of complaints after the company sent 50,000 ticket notices to people who did not own the vehicles when the parking citations were issued.

Lockheed Information Management Services, a Teaneck, N.J.-based subsidiary of defense contractor Lockheed Corp., has been no stranger to controversy. When it was called Datacom, the company was implicated in the political corruption scandals of New York City four years ago. One former city official and a local Democratic leader were convicted of paying bribes to obtain business for Datacom, and a former president of the company testified that he had authorized bribe payments.

The company, though not charged with any crime, lost its contract in New York City and suffered negative publicity around the country.

Since 1986, the company has installed new leadership, instituted an ethics program and made a number of other changes, according to Thomas J. O'Neil, Lockheed Information Systems senior vice president.

"It was a very difficult time," O'Neil said in an interview. "It probably served to make us tougher and better."

While becoming an acknowledged leader in the municipal parking industry, Lockheed has lobbied energetically for contracts in several cities and has hired a number of former government officials.

Since 1983, Lockheed/Datacom and its officials have contributed at least $71,400 to city and county elected officials in Los Angeles, with about half of the money given to Bradley, campaign records show. The company also has hired Julie A. Sgarzi, who served as a transportation aide to Bradley from 1977 to 1981.

As a regional vice president for Lockheed, Sgarzi served as project manager when the company signed its five-year contract with the city in 1985. She is now a senior vice president. Last year, the mayor appointed Sgarzi to the Cultural Affairs Commission.

The current head of Lockheed's Los Angeles office is Edgar Hayes, who previously was director of data processing for Los Angeles County. Lockheed holds a $2.6-million, three-year contract with Los Angeles County to process parking citations for county unincorporated areas and several cities, according to county officials.

"We have hired folks from the public sector," said O'Neil, who himself had been a Boston official before he went to work for Datacom in that city. "How better to understand the process? It is logical, ethical, and moral."

The company currently processes parking citations for 100 U.S. cities or counties, O'Neil said, including Boston, Washington and New Orleans.

At least 250 cities and counties contract out such services, according to Marie Witmer of the Institutional and Municipal Parking Congress, a Virginia-based clearinghouse on parking issues.

Lockheed's relationship with Los Angeles began in the early 1980s when the City Council sought to increase revenue by centralizing the city's fragmented parking enforcement, citation processing and collections system. In 1983, the council selected Datacom and a consultant, Brophy & Associates, to perform a study that led to the current system.

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