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L.A. County supervisors spend millions on pet projects

From chauffeurs to charities to parties, the five-member board hands out money from its discretionary accounts with little oversight.

March 10, 2010|By Garrett Therolf

As Los Angeles County supervisors prepare to carve deeply into everything from public safety to social services, they also are spending millions in taxpayer dollars to burnish their public images, pay for chauffeurs, hold parties for friends and lobbyists and support pet projects.

Each supervisor receives $3.4 million a year to spend as he or she sees fit, without any public vote or scrutiny.

Supervisors' spending: An article in Section A on March 11 about Los Angeles County supervisors' discretionary spending said their office accounts included $27 million in unspent funds, enough to cover the salaries of 216 social workers for a year. In fact, it is enough to cover the cost to the county of 216 social workers for a year, including benefits and clerical support. —

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, for example, has spent more than $200,000 to support his new website along with Facebook and Twitter accounts, according to interviews and a Times review of documents obtained through the state Public Records Act.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas used $25,000 to buy a place in Who’s Who in Black Los Angeles.

And Supervisors Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Ridley-Thomas used some of their money to pay for cars and chauffeurs. Knabe's armed driver makes $90,000 annually.

The supervisors don't spend all they get and are sitting on a large sum. As of November, the balance in the five supervisors' office accounts totaled $27 million, enough to cover the salaries of 216 social workers for a year.

In addition to their discretionary office accounts, supervisors have tapped millions more for what the county calls capital improvements, including a media center, largely for their use, at the county Hall of Administration, records and interviews show.

Although the office money is a small part of the county's $23-billion budget, it allows supervisors to spend more lavishly -- and with less accountability -- than others in the bureaucracy they oversee.

They use it to cover staff salaries, expenses, travel, special programs and donations to outside groups. Most goes to staff salaries, and some to projects that appear to be good, popular causes.

Yaroslavsky donated $12 million for a library and Supervisor Gloria Molina donated $7 million to build a culture and arts center. Antonovich has given to youth soccer groups.

Other jurisdictions have frozen or trimmed discretionary accounts. Los Angeles city leaders, for instance, recently ceded $12 million in discretionary dollars to the city's ailing general fund. Surrounding counties also require public discussion of discretionary spending on outside groups, as well as detailed accounting and a vote.

"Otherwise, the belief is that it would be an illegal gift of public money," said Orange County spokesman David Wert.

Los Angeles County supervisors, however, spend behind the scenes.

Molina, for instance, has given $200,000 to the Sheriff's Department over the last 28 months, as well as small amounts to various community groups and causes. But like Antonovich and Yaroslavsky, she declined repeated requests to discuss the allocations. (Yaroslavsky made an aide available for limited questions about his website.)

Ridley-Thomas and an aide to Knabe said recipients are thoroughly screened and serve causes important to constituents.

Patrick Ogawa, who works for the Board of Supervisors' executive office, denied The Times' request for documentation on the subject, saying compiling it would be too arduous.

At Ridley-Thomas' request, however, Ogawa agreed to supply documents for the supervisor's district. More than six weeks later, he has released nothing. The Times was able to obtain only the names of recipients and the amounts they received from July 2007 to November 2009, with nothing to explain the expenditures.

According to the records, Los Angeles County leaders gave a total of $4.8 million to outside groups in the last 28 months -- sometimes boosting their public profiles or benefiting people to whom supervisors had personal or political ties.

Antonovich's name is emblazoned on the schedules of the soccer leagues he supports, and Knabe is listed as a benefactor in many nonprofit newsletters.

Ridley-Thomas has supported charities whose mission is to get voters to the polls. The supervisor contributed $1,000 to the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and $2,500 to Acorn, two groups with major voter registration drives targeting Latinos and low-income people, respectively.

The supervisor also has donated to friends and political allies.

Ridley-Thomas gave $25,000 last year to throw a reception for a for-profit exhibit on the African American experience organized by TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, a longtime friend.

He also donated $25,000 last year to the Diva Foundation, whose mission is to support groups that conduct AIDS research, education and support. Its president, Tony-nominated Sheryl Lee Ralph, emceed his 2008 campaign kickoff.

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