Los Angeles County prosecutors are examining whether county supervisors broke the law when they spent millions of taxpayer dollars on pet projects without a public vote or discussion.
The inquiry began in response to a complaint received last week when The Times detailed some of the $3.4 million per year that each of the five supervisors receives to spend at his or her discretion, said Head Deputy Dist. Atty. David Demerjian, who oversees the district attorney's public integrity division.
Supervisors used the money to pay for drivers, hold parties for friends and lobbyists, and make donations to outside groups. Among the expenditures was $25,000 by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to buy a place in "Who's Who in Black Los Angeles."
Demerjian, whose division typically prosecutes public corruption cases, said he assigned two prosecutors to handle the inquiry. One is reviewing whether supervisors violated the state's open meetings law by spending the funds without a public vote. The second is examining whether supervisors had the legal authority to spend the money.
"To expend public funds, you have to spend according to some resolution, some statute or some charter section, and it has to serve a governmental purpose," Demerjian said Thursday.
He said prosecutors have asked the county counsel's office what authority the Board of Supervisors had for the so-called discretionary spending and expects a response next week. He declined to name the person who sent the complaint, which was made the same day The Times published its story.
The supervisors' discretionary accounts are used to cover staff salaries, expenses, travel, special programs and donations to outside groups. Supervisors gave a total of $4.8 million to outside groups in the last 28 months -- sometimes raising their public profiles or benefiting friends and political supporters.
Los Angeles County used to vote on such donations until the 1990s, when the contributions dropped off the public meeting agendas apparently without explanation.
Although surrounding counties also give their supervisors discretionary accounts, Los Angeles County is distinct in not requiring a public vote for donations to outside groups.
Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich said they welcomed the district attorney's inquiry and that county lawyers had always advised them that the donations were legal.
Over the last decade, the district attorney's office has opened several inquiries in response to complaints about the Board of Supervisors, Demerjian said.
In 2008, prosecutors decided against filing criminal charges against then-Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke amid allegations that she was living outside her district. And in 2004, prosecutors faulted the board for violating the state's open meetings law by discussing Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center behind closed doors. (A judge later ruled the board had not violated the law.)
Most inquiries, however, were quickly closed when prosecutors concluded that the allegations did not amount to criminal conduct, Demerjian said.
News of the spending in L.A. County drew strong public criticism and comes at a time when supervisors are preparing to slice into their entire $23-billion budget, much of which is used to provide social and health services for the region's poor.
Nevertheless, one legal expert said building a criminal case around the discretionary spending would be far from easy.
To prove that an expenditure is a misappropriation of public funds, prosecutors must show that officials spent money without legal authority and that they or someone else benefited. But supervisors would probably argue that the money was used to promote a county purpose, said Dmitry Gorin, a defense attorney and former prosecutor.
"It is tough to make these cases," Gorin said, adding that prosecutors would probably take their time reviewing the allegations. "The D.A.'s office on the one hand wants to root out public corruption. On the other, they don't want to make an accusation if they can't prove it."
Last week, Yaroslavsky told KPCC's "Air Talk" that he has long supported the idea of setting a financial threshold for donations to outside groups -- such as $10,000 or $20,000 -- and that payments above that threshold should be put to a public vote. He said he had floated the idea before but had trouble winning support for the proposal from other supervisors. He did not say when he had previously suggested it.
All four supervisors refused to comment to The Times about Yaroslavsky's proposal or any other idea for changing the rules for spending discretionary funds.
Los Angeles County supervisors don't spend all they get. As of November, they had $27 million in discretionary accounts between them, enough to cover the salaries of more than 200 social workers for a year.