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Old Fire Station Funds Banked by Private Unit : Revenue: Chief Manning heads nonprofit group promoting film use of facility. Controller begins probe.

April 18, 1995|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With its finely restored interior and turn-of-the-century architecture, old Fire Station 23 in Downtown Los Angeles is one of the choicest filming locations in town. The "Ghostbusters" movies were shot there. So were "Police Academy II," "The Mask," "V.I. Warshawski" and dozens of other films, commercials and music videos.

But the city of Los Angeles, which owns the historic station, has not received any of the rent or film fees paid during the past decade, or any of the interest it has earned. Instead, the money--more than $200,000--has been banked by a nonprofit organization headed by Fire Chief Donald O. Manning and his top aide, Deputy Chief Gerald L. Johnson, according to its tax records.

The organization, called Olde 23's, was created to raise funds for a fire museum at the location. But records show that the organization has not spent a single dollar toward that goal. Moreover, the fire station has not been the site of the proposed museum for seven years.

Nonetheless, Manning's organization has remained in business, renting out the publicly owned station without turning over the proceeds, as required by city law. So sophisticated has the operation become that a glossy color brochure on the station house has been circulated throughout the film industry, proclaiming: "A block long with high ceiling, bay windows, tiles, brick and more!"

Prompted by inquiries from The Times, the city controller's office has begun an investigation into the unusual arrangement. "I'm grim about this," said Controller Rick Tuttle who, like other Los Angeles officials, said he was unaware of Olde 23's existence.

Tuttle said the organization has no standing to collect fees from movie companies or rent from a "caretaker" tenant who lives in the defunct station on 5th Street, where he operates an unlicensed production company and has collected thousands of dollars for the film shoots.

The controller also said that the chief failed to inform his office of the corporation's existence, even though his auditors in the past year specifically requested such information during two audits and a survey of nonprofit groups affiliated with city departments.

The Fire Commission, whose members said they too were unaware of Manning's actions, is scheduled to take up the matter at its meeting today.

Perhaps the only person who believed there might be a problem was Greg Wilkins, a management analyst with the Department of General Services. While surveying Downtown buildings in 1986, Wilkins said, he discovered that rent on the Skid Row fire station was not being deposited in the general fund. Despite repeated attempts to reach Deputy Chief Johnson, Wilkins said, his calls went unreturned.

"I got stonewalled," he said.

Citing today's Fire Commission meeting, Manning and Johnson have refused to comment.

Inside City Hall, Olde 23's existence is known only to a handful of Fire Department employees, who use city time to maintain the corporation's books, prepare its tax statements and deposit the money into the bank account controlled by Manning and Johnson. Olde 23's lists its business office as Fire Department headquarters. Manning is the president and chief executive officer, its incorporation records show, and Johnson is the secretary-treasurer.

Records for the account at the Los Angeles Firemen's Credit Union show nearly $210,000 earned from film fees, rent and interest. More than 90% of the money collected by Olde 23's has been in cash.

Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose 9th District includes old Station 23, said she now believes that fire officials misled her three years ago when she chaired a council hearing regarding a city proposal to sell the property. Walters said she was told that the station was in poor condition and in need of seismic upgrading.

"I was never informed," the councilwoman said, "that it was used for any purpose."

Station 23, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, is one of the most elegant firehouses ever constructed. Built in 1910 at a cost of $60,000, the building was the department's headquarters until about 1920. It was vacated in 1961.

The third-floor living quarters--once the home of the fire chief and his family--feature elaborate mahogany doors, marble fireplace and bath and imported Italian tile. A Library of Congress survey of 250 firehouses concluded that Station 23's ornate interior was unmatched in its beauty.

"It is a great raw architectural space that you can do a lot with," said producer John Dennis, who has used the firehouse for AT&T and Bank of America commercials.

On June 26, 1979, at the urging of the Fire Department, the City Council passed a motion declaring the station the official site of a proposed Los Angeles fire museum.

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