Ridley-Thomas won't release any communications involving associate

E-mails, memos and letters involving Expo Line, Cynthia McClain-Hill and contractors that employed her were sought.

November 24, 2009|By Paul Pringle

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has declined to release any records of communications between his office and a longtime associate who has been employed by corporations that do millions of dollars of business with the county and a rail project that Ridley-Thomas helps oversee.

Ridley-Thomas similarly rejected Times requests for any e-mails, memos and letters involving the companies that hired the associate, Cynthia McClain-Hill, earlier this year.

The Times has reported that federal authorities have questioned people about Ridley-Thomas' ties to McClain-Hill and her employment with a joint venture managed by Flatiron Construction, which is building the $862-million, taxpayer-funded Expo Line light rail train. McClain-Hill, a lawyer who owns a lobbyist firm and has contributed thousands of dollars to Ridley-Thomas' campaigns, also works for Unisys Corp., which provides computer services to the county. Under the California Public Records Act, The Times sought more than nine months of records, including copies of the supervisor's appointment calendar and telephone bills.

Ridley-Thomas released only copies of his calendar, and the great majority of the entries, some of which were personal, were blacked out. The calendar did show that he had a half-dozen appointments with McClain-Hill from January through June of this year,including on the day of an April meeting by the board overseeing construction of the downtown-to-Culver City Expo Line. Ridley-Thomas sits on the panel.

On behalf of the supervisor, the county counsel's office said the records sought by The Times, including many of the calendar entries, were exempt from public disclosure requirements because he was entitled to a private "deliberative process." Open-government advocates disagreed.

"The privilege they are citing is one that is grossly abused," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. "If you're a public official, you can get away with hiding a lot of stuff by invoking the magic words 'deliberative process.' It's indefensible."

Ridley-Thomas declined to be interviewed.

The federal queries grew out of a U.S. Labor Department and FBI investigation into alleged corruption within the Service Employees International Union, a key financial backer of Ridley-Thomas' election campaign last year, people familiar with the probe say.

Federal officials have declined to comment, and Flatiron executives have not responded to Times interview requests. McClain-Hill also did not return phone calls. She has said previously Ridley-Thomas had nothing to do with her hiring by the rail contractors.

As managing partner on the rail project with the firms Fluor and Parsons, Flatiron retained McClain-Hill shortly after Ridley-Thomas raised the possibility at an Expo board meeting of terminating the firms' contract if they did not begin reaching goals for hiring local residents.

McClain-Hill has said that the jobs program was only a small part of her responsibilities, and that she was employed to deal with "a range of contract compliance issues." But in response to a separate Public Records Act request made to the rail agency, The Times obtained a June letter sent to Richard Thorpe, the Expo Line chief executive officer, by Flatiron and the other contractors that indicates the hiring goals were a significant portion of her duties.

The letter came after the Expo staff asked the contractors about McClain-Hill's role. It said she represented the companies for the jobs program and an effort to recruit disadvantaged subcontractors.

Several e-mails to and from the Expo staff, which The Times also obtained from the rail agency, show that McClain-Hill was involved in some high-level communications about the jobs program.

McClain-Hill, a former member of the state Fair Political Practices Commission and California Coastal Commission, was retained by Unisys around the time the company was seeking a contract to replace its computer system in the county Department of Public Social Services. The welfare agency pays Unisys about $27 million a year, according to Michael Sylvester, an assistant director for the department.

McClain-Hill has said she was retained for duties unrelated to the contract bid but would not elaborate. Unisys lost the bid in July, Sylvester said.

The Unisys spokesman would not discuss McClain-Hill's employment other than to say that she has worked on several of its projects in the past.

The firm has received payments from the county of about $132.5 million since August 2005, according to the county auditor-controller.

Meanwhile, the calendar entries show that Ridley-Thomas had two appointments with McClain-Hill and a representative from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. A company spokesman said it has proposed doing work for the county's health programs but has yet to receive a contract. McClain-Hill lists PricewaterhouseCoopers as a client on her firm's website.

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