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'Gold Card Desk' dismissed some L.A. parking tickets without justification, audit finds

City Controller Wendy Greuel raises the specter that some people may have received special treatment in the handling of contested traffic tickets.

May 20, 2011|By Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • A plastic L.A. parking bureau Gold Card distributed to city offices includes a special phone number to call and on the back side notes that the holder may have an urgent need to resolve any parking citation matter which requires special attention. It promises you will be immediately connected to our Gold Card Specialist.
A plastic L.A. parking bureau Gold Card distributed to city offices includes…

Approximately 1,000 Los Angeles city parking citations over a two-year period were dismissed — some without justification — through an obscure service known as the "Gold Card Desk" that allows the mayor and other elected officials to fast-track citation reviews, a new audit has found.

The service, which few outside of city government appear to know about, partly involves a plastic parking bureau "Gold Card" that is distributed to city offices. It includes a special phone number to call and on the back side notes that the holder may have an "urgent need to resolve any parking citation matter which requires special attention." It promises "you will be immediately connected to our Gold Card Specialist."

The program was started about 20 years ago to permit officials and their staff to expedite constituent appeals of parking tickets and possibly have fines reduced or eliminated. But auditors took issue with the service during a review of the city Department of Transportation.

City Controller Wendy Greuel, who released the report Thursday, raised the specter that some people may have received special treatment in the handling of contested tickets.

"You should not need political pull to expedite the investigation of a ticket," said Greuel, a possible candidate for mayor. "There were no specific policies to guide the review of these citations … we believe causing a rift for inappropriate cancellations."

Greuel's audit said the Gold Card referral service is provided exclusively to the mayor's office and council district offices.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office challenged that Thursday afternoon, providing figures it had received indicating that about 90% of some 5,600 requests for Gold Card reviews came from within the transportation department and other sources in recent years, though it did include hundreds of requests from the mayor and City Council offices.

The L.A. mayor's office also released information showing Greuel voted to approve a contract that included the Gold Card program, that she had been briefed on the program and that staff members in her office used the service while she was on the council.

Greuel said she did not know about the service until recently and that the audit's findings — and her recommendation that the Gold Card Desk be eliminated — stood independently of any past actions.

Auditors sampled 40 dismissals involving the Gold Card Desk. Greuel said that in "90% of those cases there was not a paper trail [showing] where those original requests came from or justification for that dismissal."

All that was found in those cases were directives from transportation department managers to reduce fines or dismiss tickets, Greuel said. Overall, Greuel said it was unclear what percentage of the dismissals were done for justifiable reasons. Her office said the investigation could not pinpoint the source of all the referrals.

Officials with the Department of Transportation defended the program's integrity. They said the desk was created in response to elected officials' requests to have a central point to send complaints about citations.

"It's not intended to have any special consideration or dismissal, but rather an opportunity for an individual to be heard," said Robert Andalon, a senior transportation department official.

He said there are two employees in charge of the Gold Card Desk, and that they act as ombudsmen. They were hired by the department's ticket-processing contractor, Affiliated Computer Services, he said.

The transportation department's interim general manager, Amir Sedadi, said the department plans to discontinue the program in its upcoming contract.

At a news conference Thursday, transportation department officials handed out fact sheets that included a description of the Gold Card Desk. It said "all contested citations, including those referred through the [Gold Card Desk] are reviewed using the exact same procedures."

But, according to the audit, some of the tickets receiving expedited reviews were tossed out solely based on the violator's self-proclaimed inability to pay — a complaint Greuel's investigation portrayed as a dubious reason for dismissal. Some tickets were eliminated without the required paperwork. Other requests for dismissal did not include any reason at all.

The program appears virtually unknown to most ticket recipients. Dozens of those who showed up Thursday to pay citations at an enforcement office downtown said they had never heard of the service.

"I wish they did let us know about it," said 55-year-old Donny Legans, who arrived to pay an $88 ticket. Legans then asked officials inside about the program but was told it did not exist.

"They said there is no such thing. You can't appeal," said Legans, who works in the air-conditioning business. "They told me: You have 30 days to pay this ticket or it will be doubled."

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