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County Moves to Tighten Rules on Gifts to Workers

October 13, 1999|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County supervisors unanimously moved Tuesday to direct their staff to draft a new policy on gifts to county employees by contractors.

The decision, which was made by consent and without public discussion, came after the disclosure that a businessman gave a friend at the Department of Children and Family Services $25,000 to buy a new Mercedes-Benz and helped arrange financing on the balance. Shortly before, the businessman had obtained a $4-million computer contract with the child welfare agency.

The district attorney's office declined to prosecute the Department of Children and Family Services manager, Tedjitou Dessalegn, saying that she had no apparent influence on the award of the contract.

The case has exposed loopholes in county policy and is a reminder that Los Angeles County's ethics restrictions are looser than at smaller neighboring institutions such as the city of Los Angeles and the MTA.

County officials who are designated by their departments must report gifts annually and may accept no more than $300 worth of gratuities from any single source. But Dessalegn, for example, was not a designated employee, even though she reported to the director of the agency and acted as a liaison with the offices of county supervisors, who approve contracts.

Supervisor Don Knabe, who with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed the review, said the county has to extend its policy to cover a wider range of employees. "We have to level the playing field," he said.

Yaroslavsky said: "What I hope will come out of this is a more realistic and complete list of people who are subject to disclosure."

Knabe and Yaroslavsky said the group of county officials who regularly review conflict-of-interest statements--County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman, Director of Human Resources Mike Henry and a member of the executive office--may also consider whether the ceiling on gifts should be lowered.

At Los Angeles City Hall, department heads may not accept gifts of more than $100 from companies that may do business with their department. At the MTA, staff cannot accept gifts of more than $10 under extraordinarily stringent ethics requirements imposed by the Legislature.

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