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COLUMN ONE

Running Up the Taxpayers' Phone Bill

Lax oversight has allowed Los Angeles city and county employees to make millions of dollars in cellular calls, a Times study has found.

January 07, 1996|JEFF BRAZIL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you live in Los Angeles and can't afford the luxury of a cellular phone, don't worry about it. You're already paying for more than 3,000 of them.

At a time when local government coffers are sapped, taxpayers unknowingly are doling out millions of dollars each year for cellular calls made by thousands of city and county employees, a Times study has found.

Once restricted to the upper reaches of government, cellular phones are now being distributed deep into the bureaucracy--with scant oversight of the bills.

As Los Angeles Public Works Commissioner Ellen Stein put it: "There is a Pandora's box here that needs to be opened."

In the last fiscal year alone, cellular costs for the city and county rose about 60%, to a projected cost of roughly $3 million a year. Some departments recorded increases of more than 400%, according to documents obtained through the state Public Records Act.

Nowhere in the nation do cellular charges by government workers consume a bigger chunk of public monies than in Los Angeles--despite the severe budget crises that have plagued the city and county in recent years. Los Angeles also apparently stands alone as the only major metropolis not to have imposed restrictions as a way to curtail costs and abuses.

Because Los Angeles officials for years have failed to audit cellular bills, it is anyone's guess as to how many unnecessary business calls or unreimbursed personal calls have been subsidized by the public.

But one indication may be found in what happened after The Times began inquiring about the high cost of the phones in May: As word spread, bills in most county departments fell by more than 50%.

In addition, at least one county employee, a social worker for children services, was disciplined in the wake of The Times' inquiry about the department's cellular bills. Her monthly bills exceeded $400 in early 1995 and a department probe showed that she had been making personal calls without reimbursing the county. She was ordered to repay the money.

Some officials suspect that if the entire system were scrutinized, similar abuses might surface.

"There's got to be a better way to do this," said Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who said he will seek a council probe of cell phone use by city employees.

The Times study was based on tens of thousands of pages of bills detailing monthly charges for each of the more than 3,000 cellular phones used by the city and county. In some cases, the record-keeping was in such disarray that officials were unable to locate bills or even figure out who was piling up tens of thousands of dollars in charges on scores of phones.

Despite repeated requests, lawyers for the city and county refused to provide telephone numbers being dialed by government workers so that the newspaper could determine independently whether abuses were occurring.

*

Documents supplied for most county departments span from January 1993 to March 1995. City officials, for their part, released records covering a six-month period last year--with the exception of the departments of water and power, and airports and harbor, for which more comprehensive files were provided.

Among other things, the records reveal little connection between the heft of one's responsibilities and the size of the bill.

Sally Reed, who is Los Angeles County's chief administrative officer, has one of the biggest jobs in town. Her monthly cell phone bill averaged a relatively modest $110 on her main phone and $41 on her backup.

"I use it only when I need to," she said of her phone. "When it makes sense."

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at City Hall is Adolfo Nodal, head of the city's cultural affairs department. His monthly tab averages $685, nearly five times that of Reed. "I guess it does add up, doesn't it?" said Nodal, whose staff has been slashed because of budget shortfalls. "I need to start looking at my bills more."

Here are a few other notable findings culled from documents and interviews:

* More than 600 city and county workers had monthly bills averaging more than $100. By comparison, the average cellular bill in the United States as of June was $52.45, according to the Cellular Telephone Industry Assn.

* More than 1,200 city and county employees ran up single-month bills of more than $300. Among the highest: $4,387 on a Sheriff's Department phone, $2,324 on a phone in the county's internal services department and $2,049 on a cellular in the city's Department of Water and Power.

* Because of communication foul-ups in the bureaucracy, the county continued to pay bills--for as long as three years--on phones that were supposed to have been disconnected.

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