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Who's Who with whose funds?

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas spent $25,000 for a spot in "Who's Who in Black Los Angeles." The DWP also put down ratepayer funds to spotlight 10 of its top leaders in the book.

April 21, 2010|Steve Lopez

A few weeks ago, my colleague Garrett Therolf wrote about how Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas used $25,000 in public funds to buy himself a place in "Who's Who in Black Los Angeles."

Well, it turns out he wasn't the only one.

Last week I bought a copy of the $34.95 book to see what we got for our $25,000, and sure enough, Ridley Thomas is in there. But what jumped out was the "Government Spotlight" section, a six-page feature on a local utility that's been all over the news because of its arrogant rate hike demand.

You guessed it.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

No fewer than 10 senior members of the department are featured in "Who's Who in Black Los Angeles," with nice head shots and bios.

Lamar Odom of the Lakers didn't make the cut. Will Smith is nowhere to be found.

But 10 DWP people you never heard of are in there?

And there's more. You'd think that after the amazing five-year package of bonuses and pay hikes DWP employees were given late last year they'd be making enough to pay their own way into "Who's Who."

But they didn't, of course.

Documents show that the DWP paid $7,500 in 2008 to be in the first edition of "Who's Who in Black Los Angeles," and another $15,000 to be in the current edition. I guess we're lucky it's not a monthly publication.

These sums aren't going to break the bank at DWP, a $4.5-billion agency. But that's ratepayer money, and not since about eighth grade have I met anyone who actually looks at a Who's Who of anything.

The first time I got a letter from Who's Who congratulating me on my selection into the club, I felt great. Until I got to the second paragraph, where they told me what it would cost. That's when I chucked the whole thing.

"I was solicited to be in there," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the author, columnist and commentator who is EVERYWHERE in Los Angeles except in "Who's Who in Black Los Angeles."

Hutchinson said the solicitation struck him as "a hustle" and he ignored it.

"I have a body of work," he said. If they wanted to include him in the publication on his merits, fine. But Hutchinson said he wasn't going to pay or look for a sponsor.

It's for people who "want to promote their ego," Hutchinson said, and he didn't feel the need. When he saw the publication, he wasn't impressed, not that there aren't a lot of worthy honorees.

"I can immediately think of 10 people who have done meaningful things to contribute to the life of the city, and I dare say they're not in there."

When I called the Who's Who Publishing Co. in Columbus, Ohio, I was told you don't have to pay to be in their publication. And that's true for some of those included, although DWP leaders and Ridley Thomas generously obliged, paying for packages that included some advertising.

L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks' staffers told me they aren't sure how he ended up in the publication, but no payment was made. And Earl Paysinger, LAPD assistant chief, didn't pay and didn't know he was in the book until I called him.

Senior Editor Nathan Wylder told me Who's Who reads local publications for "people whose names and faces pop up in the news."

That could explain why Sharon Harper was included. She made headlines for being demoted as L.A. County's second highest executive late last year after The Times reported that county auditors found she had improperly helped her son-in-law obtain a county job at inflated pay.

At DWP, spokesman Joe Ramallo said the utility was solicited by Anthony Asadullah Samad, a local author who serves as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Los Angeles." (I left messages but didn't hear back from Samad.)

Ramallo said the money the DWP spent on "Who's Who" wasn't just to honor its employees, but for "outreach and communication within the African American community." This year's $15,000 payment covered three pages of advertising in "Who's Who" and 25 complimentary copies of the book.

As for Ridley Thomas, he told my colleague Therolf that his $25,000 was for the inclusion of 14 county officials besides himself. I've asked Ridley Thomas to explain his justification for the expense, and to update me on the plans he announced last year to spend $707,000 remodeling his office. He was busy but said he would meet with me soon.

That's good, because I can't wait to hear his explanation for spending county money to see himself and a few colleagues in a dust-collecting vanity publication. His $25,000 "Who's Who" payment came out of a discretionary fund. Each supervisor gets $3.4 million each year to spend at will, and currently the unspent total for all five supervisors is about $27 million.

That's nowhere near enough to cover the $500-million budget shortfall. But if the supes surrendered their personal stashes, they could save dozens of jobs and cover the $27 million in proposed cuts for four departments — public health, libraries, social services and the assessor's office.

They'd be heroes.

Heck, they could end up in "Who's Who."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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