The director of the struggling Los Angeles Convention Center has been moonlighting as a consultant to help build a facility in Hawaii that could siphon away some of Los Angeles' convention trade.
Dick Walsh, who earns $131,607 a year from his post as the center's general manager, has collected nearly $80,000 from the Hawaii Convention Center Authority over the past two years, according to documents obtained by The Times. Walsh has visited the islands a dozen times for a total of 48 days since the start of his contract July 1, 1994, and has worked more than 1,000 hours--the equivalent of some 60 workdays a year--on the Honolulu project, records show.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Convention Center remains unable to fill its halls, requiring a taxpayer subsidy of more than $20 million a year to pay off debt from its $500-million expansion and garnering increasing criticism at City Hall and in the downtown business community.
Walsh, who has run the Convention Center for two decades, said he has worked on the Hawaii project only during evenings and weekends, and used vacation days for his business trips to the islands. He noted that he followed city policy in receiving permission from the mayor's office, and said his work in Honolulu has not hurt his day job.
"I'm a bit of a workaholic," he said. "This is obviously my prime job, running the Convention Center. That's not going to suffer. . . . Without sounding braggadocio, I'm good at what I do."
On Tuesday, Mayor Richard Riordan said his office's initial approval of the arrangement in 1994 had been based on the expectation that Walsh's role would be narrow and short term.
The mayor dashed off a letter asking the city Ethics Commission to investigate whether Walsh has broken the law.
"It is a huge stretch between an honorarium and a multiyear contract . . . the contract and its specific terms, including its expanding scope, should have been fully disclosed to my office and was not," Riordan wrote in his letter, which was hand-delivered to the Ethics Commission late Tuesday. "This contract is incompatible and perhaps even in direct conflict with Mr. Walsh's responsibility to maximize the city's financial return from the Los Angeles Convention Center."
Steve Sugerman, the mayor's assistant chief of staff, added in an interview: "Had we known of this type of scope, we absolutely would not have approved it.
"The taxpayers expect that general managers and all city employees are focused on their job in the city of Los Angeles," Sugerman said. "The Los Angeles Convention Center is competing in a very competitive marketplace . . . it has been a huge financial drain on the city. We would hope that every ounce of energy, plus some, would be dedicated to making this center perform to expectations."
Council members Joel Wachs and Richard Alatorre called for Walsh's immediate firing. An initiative recently approved by city voters stripped general managers, including Walsh, of their civil service protection, so they can now be fired by the mayor if the council approves.
"That's shocking. That's unbelievable. It's a blatant conflict of interest," Wachs said.
"He should be busting his ass full-time to get business for Los Angeles," Wachs said. "He should be working around the clock to build business for L.A., not running off to Hawaii getting paid double. He doesn't have any free time."
Local business leaders agreed, saying the renovated Convention Center has fallen far short of expectations, failing to become the promised economic engine for a sagging downtown and saddling taxpayers with a $20-million bill each year.
"The Convention Center has simply not lived up to its economic potential," said Carol Schatz, executive director of the Central City Assn., which represents 250 businesses. "The Convention Center deserves all of [Walsh's] attention."
Austin Anderson, president of Economic Research Associates--a Westside consulting firm that has studied the Convention Center--agreed that the past several years have been among the most challenging in the agency's history.
"It's pretty clear it's short of original expectations," Anderson said.
Nonetheless, Walsh was recruited by the Hawaiian officials in 1994 after a delegation visited Los Angeles' renovated facility as part of a national tour.
Originally, Walsh simply sat on a panel to help select an architect for the $200-million Honolulu facility, which is scheduled to open for 15,000-person meetings in 1998. He then joined the Hawaiian Authority's Design Evaluation Board, signing a one-year contract; since then, the contract has been amended six times, with the scope of duties broadened and the maximum payment jumping from $20,000 to $105,000.
Sugerman said Riordan's then-chief of staff William Ouchi believed he was approving a project that would last less than a month and earn Walsh about $1,000. Ouchi did not return calls for comment Tuesday.