Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick sharply criticized Mayor James K. Hahn Friday for using a $3-million-a-year public relations contract with the Department of Water and Power for his own benefit.
And two of Hahn's mayoral challengers called on him to repay the city for thousands of dollars of work the PR firm Fleishman-Hillard did on the mayor's behalf and billed to the utility.
"This is a very sad day for the city of Los Angeles," Chick said after The Times reported that, in 2002 and 2003, Fleishman billed the DWP more than $400,000 to arrange news conferences and press releases featuring Hahn and to provide other PR services to the mayor.
"The ratepayers of Los Angeles were used to fund a public relations team for the mayor," Chick said. Last week, she released a stinging audit of Fleishman-Hillard, charging that it had overbilled the city by $4.2 million over five years.
The DWP has paid Fleishman $24 million since 1998 for work that was supposed to improve the utility's image as it prepared to face competition from other utilities. Chick posted some of Fleishman's bills on her website, lacity.org/ctr/Audit_news.htm, on Friday.
Hahn spokesman Yusef K. Robb said the mayor believed that he was not the beneficiary of the contract but that Fleishman's work benefited the city of Los Angeles and the DWP's efforts to reduce pollution.
"The mayor of Los Angeles should be out front on efforts to clean up the L.A. environment," Robb said.
The Times story, based on thousands of pages of invoices and e-mails between the firm and the mayor's office and on interviews with former Fleishman-Hillard workers, showed that Hahn's office often treated the DWP contract as its own.
The St. Louis-based firm wrote speeches, letters and media plans for the mayor and prepared news releases, many of which were on Hahn's letterhead and made minimal or no mention of the utility.
Records also indicate that the firm was in almost daily contact with the mayor's office, for which the DWP was charged.
Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running against Hahn in the March election, wrote to the mayor Friday demanding that he repay the DWP.
"It is bad enough that Fleishman-Hillard was repeatedly rehired to promote the DWP," Villaraigosa wrote. "It is outrageous that they were simultaneously serving as a high-priced extension of your communications department, while overbilling the city millions of dollars."
In a statement, Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who also is running against Hahn, called on him to repay the money, which Parks said "could have put more police officers on the streets to reduce the historically high murder rate."
State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), also a mayoral candidate, renewed his call for the DWP to roll back a recent rate hike.
In addition, Villaraigosa and two other council members introduced proposals Friday to improve fiscal oversight at the DWP, the port and the airport and prevent future contracts like the one with Fleishman.
City Council members Jack Weiss, Wendy Greuel and Villaraigosa proposed the creation of an investigative unit in the city controller's office to root out fraud and waste; expanding the number of internal auditors at the airport, harbor, DWP and the Community Redevelopment Agency; and requiring annual audits of those departments.
Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.