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L.A. agency sues its former investigator

Abel Ruiz says he was fired for asking too many questions about a possible bid-rigging scheme. The city says he didn't ask enough.

September 10, 2007|Jessica Garrison and Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writers

When Abel Ruiz was fired last month by the troubled Los Angeles Housing Authority, he said it was because he, as the agency's chief investigator, was asking too many questions about an apparent $800,000 bid-rigging scheme.

Now his former bosses have hit back in a lawsuit, saying that Ruiz, who headed the agency's internal controls department, did not ask enough. After they upbraided him for conducting an insufficient probe, the lawsuit says, Ruiz began engaging in "witch-hunting" that targeted some of them along with current and former City Council members.

In a written statement, Ruiz accused the authority of filing the lawsuit as a "retaliatory attack."

"I did my job to expose waste, fraud and/or abuse," he said. He declined to answer specific charges in the suit, saying his lawyers would respond "when appropriate."

The charges and counter-charges are yet another twist in the convoluted, almost soap-operatic troubles facing the largest housing authority west of the Mississippi.

The agency is charged with providing shelter to more than 110,000 of the city's poorest and sickest residents, but it has been racked by scandal and mismanagement for decades.

Hired in 2004, the housing authority's executive director, Rudolf Montiel, brought Ruiz in the next year to help him root out corruption and wrongdoing.

But over the summer, according to the lawsuit, Montiel became concerned about Ruiz's performance and reprimanded him after The Times published an article about the apparent bid-rigging scheme that included many details that Ruiz had failed to uncover.

The case involved a high-level manager, Victor Taracena, who over several years appears to have steered $800,000 worth of federal construction and design contracts to family members and politically connected firms, according to contract files. Through his lawyer, Taracena has denied wrongdoing.

The housing authority's lawsuit claims that Ruiz failed in investigating Taracena, a failure that became apparent after The Times reported on the case in July.

According to the suit, "many of the details disclosed in this article had not been discovered . . . despite Ruiz's representations that he had conducted and was conducting an extensive investigation."

The lawsuit says Montiel told Ruiz that he was going to turn over the internal investigation to the inspector general's office at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides most of the agency's funds. The case had also been referred to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which is conducting a criminal investigation.

The lawsuit says that Ruiz responded to Montiel's criticism by investigating Montiel and other officials in the agency. He accessed commercially available computerized databases that contain extensive public records and other information on individuals without ample reason, the suit says.

In the days after the reprimand, Ruiz ran more than 25 computer searches on Montiel and members of his extended family in Texas, including Montiel's brother's wife's sister's husband, according to the suit. He also ran searches on unnamed current and former City Council members.

"Additional unauthorized searches by Ruiz included innocent fellow employees about whom no complaints had been made and on whom no suspicion had fallen," the lawsuit said. "Although Ruiz in his delusion will assert he was uncovering misconduct with his unauthorized searches . . . in fact he was witch-hunting and out of control."

Ruiz told a different story. He said he complained that housing authority leaders handed the case over to law enforcement before he could complete his investigation. Then, he said, he learned that another official in the housing authority was still looking into the matter, leading him to suspect that the official could have been helping wrongdoers obstruct the investigation.

Ruiz said that after he complained, he was fired. He has said he plans his own wrongful-termination lawsuit against the agency.

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com

ted.rohrlich@latimes.com

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