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Councilman Put Dental Work on Compton's Tab

July 31, 2002|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Service with a smile took on new meaning as a public benefit in Compton when a city councilman got his teeth fixed at taxpayer expense.

Councilman Amen Rahh charged $1,200 worth of what he described as emergency dental work in July 2000 to his city credit card, issued to him for use in conducting city business.

Rahh said he repaid the city, but only after a year had passed and a new city manager questioned the charge. A previous city manager or his deputy had OKd it, Rahh said.

Rahh is under investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for possible criminal misuse of his city credit card. No charges have been filed. In addition to the dental bills, city records show that the card was used to pay the air fare and expenses for his wife and three of his children on a September 2000 trip to Washington, D.C. In an interview, Rahh said he has repaid the city $1,440 for the family's air fare.

The district attorney's investigation is part of a broader look at allegations of misuse of taxpayer money that have bedeviled the city of 90,000, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Rahh said he never intended to cheat taxpayers. He dismissed the investigation as politically motivated and aimed at supporting Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin, a deputy district attorney who last year defeated the longtime mayor, Omar Bradley. Rahh is a Bradley ally.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said the investigation began before Perrodin's election.

Rahh declined to describe details of his dental emergency, saying it was personal. He justified billing taxpayers for it by saying that he was on city business, en route to Inglewood, when the emergency arose. Rahh said he was going to meet international businessmen, whose names he can no longer recall, but who were thinking of opening a facility in Compton.

Rahh said he called either Compton City Manager John Johnson or Assistant City Manager Lawrence Adams, and one of them agreed that the charge was justified. Rahh said he drove to his regular dentist in Inglewood, who did the work. Neither Johnson nor Adams responded to repeated requests for comment.

Compton's written policy on credit cards is that they are to be used "exclusively for travel and [making] meeting reservations related to city business."

Rahh, 54, who teaches black studies at Cal State Long Beach and Compton City College, said his "intent was to go by the policy," which also says credit card holders "will be held personally liable for any unauthorized charges."

Rahh said he took that to mean civilly liable. To that end, Rahh said, he has long maintained a special account at the city controller's office, which deducts at his direction $100 to $200 per month from his city salary in case questions arise about his credit card use. Controller's office officials would not comment.

Rahh said that a year after his dental emergency, a new city manager, Howard Caldwell, questioned the propriety of the charge and Rahh then paid the city back. He produced photocopies of money orders and a copy of a receipt from the city controller's office. City Controller Marilyn Horne and her staff declined to speak with a reporter.

Last summer, Caldwell replaced Johnson as city manager when control of city government briefly shifted to a faction loyal to Perrodin and away from former Mayor Bradley.

Caldwell said he told Rahh he was discontinuing Johnson's practice of approving city payment of credit card charges without seeing a description of the charges.

According to Caldwell, the two discussed the charges and when Rahh mentioned the dental charge, Caldwell said it struck him as illegitimate. Caldwell suggested Rahh repay the money and Rahh said he would.

Both said their conversation occurred about six weeks before the district attorney's office served search warrants on City Hall and the homes of Rahh, Bradley and Johnson, seeking financial records.

In February, when control of the city government shifted back to Bradley's supporters, Johnson was reinstated as city administrator. He has refused to release public documents on the credit card expenditures of Rahh and other council members, said City Clerk Charles Davis.

State law requires that such records be open for public view.

City records obtained by The Times show that in addition to the dental work, taxpayers picked up $7,000 in expenses when Rahh's wife and three children accompanied him to Washington in September 2000. The trip was timed for the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, a gathering of black elected officials.

Rahh said he always intended to pay his family's expenses but some inadvertently were charged to his city credit card by city officials who arranged his travel.

Records show the city paid $360 for Rahh's air fare and that four $360 tickets for his wife and three children were charged to his city credit card.

Rahh produced photocopies of money orders, a check and a receipt from the controller's office indicating that 11 months after the trip, he repaid the city for his family's air fare.

The documents did not indicate any repayment for his family's hotel bill. The charge on Rahh's city credit card for accommodations in Washington came to $2,683--$670 per night for four nights.

Rahh also got a check from the city to pay his estimated rental car bill in Washington. That covered about $87 per day for five days.

But records show his city credit card was charged another $975 for a Hertz bill, bringing his total rental car expenses for the trip to $1,410, or $280 per day.

Rahh said he had only one car and two hotel rooms and that he believes his rental car and hotel charges may have been inflated, perhaps by city staff members on the trip who were charging other expenses to his card.

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