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DWP going under the microscope at last

Two months after the Los Angeles Times reported the utility couldn't account for $40 million in ratepayer funds, commissioners finally ask the city controller to look into the matter.

November 19, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • One of the remarkable things about Tuesday's DWP commission meeting was that no one ever mentioned the elephant in the room. That would be Brian D'Arcy, the IBEW's business manager, pictured in May, a defender of the mysterious nonprofits, and one of the city's political heavyweights.
One of the remarkable things about Tuesday's DWP commission meeting… (Jay L. Clendeni / Los Angeles…)

Any time you're dealing with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, whether you're trying to understand your bill or figure out how the place is run, it can be a bit of an Alice in Wonderland experience.

Take Tuesday, for instance.

That was the day we were finally supposed to hear what happened to roughly $40 million in ratepayer money that was given to two mysterious nonprofits over the last 10 years. As my colleague Jack Dolan reported two months ago, it isn't clear what the Joint Safety Institute and Joint Training Institute have done with that money, let alone why they exist. The utility and the employee union, which jointly operate the nonprofits, could offer only sketchy information about their vague mission to improve relations between management and labor and not much more about their actual activities.

So right there, we're already halfway down a rabbit hole. What do you mean you can't explain how $40 million was spent?

Reasonable people would demand an immediate accounting. But the new DWP commission appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti got off to a slow start in its handling of the matter.

Rather than call in City Controller Ron Galperin to audit the nonprofits, as he was raring to do, the commission gave the nonprofits one full month to produce an accounting of their activities. And the DWP, despite being jointly in charge of the nonprofits, let Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers decide who would do the audit.

Here's a surprise: The union selected the firm that does taxes for the two nonprofits.

Conflict of interest?

Not if you stand on your head.

So there we were Tuesday at the DWP commission hearing when the big moment arrived, and commission Chairman Mel Levine asked DWP General Manager Ron Nichols how the audit was coming along.

"My understanding is that the audit is underway," Nichols said.

His "understanding?" OK, I calmed myself and let it go. But Nichols went on to add that the audit "is not complete," saying "there's a lot to get done," and "there's not a major staff."

Yeah, but two months after the story broke, and one month after the audit was ordered, is any part of it done?

Apparently not, and Nichols didn't seem to know how much longer it might take.

I was reminded of a bit by a comedian who's waiting for the power to be turned on at his house, and the utility can't tell him when that will be. Someone has to flip a switch, he's told when he finally gets hold of a live person on the phone, but it's not clear when they'll get around to it.

Exasperated, he asks, "Can I come down there and flip the switch?"

I expected one or more of the commissioners to flip a switch and ask Nichols why it took a Times story to dig up questions about two nonprofits he helps oversee. He attends the meetings of the nonprofits, for crying out loud. Is there any reason he couldn't produce at least some of the records in half a day or less?

But instead of asking Nichols tough questions, the commissioners thanked him.

For what?

For his efforts to get information he seems unable to get.

We were on the 15th floor, as I mentioned, and I was sitting by the window. I thought about smashing the glass, using my latest DWP bill as a toe tag, and diving into the moat that surrounds the DWP castle. But would my self-sacrifice draw any attention to the absurdity of a $40-million slap in the faces of ratepayers, or would people just shrug and say:

"It's the DWP. What did that idiot columnist expect?"

Levine later told me Nichols was in a complicated predicament, with responsibilities to both the DWP and the nonprofit boards.

What about his responsibility to ratepayers? I asked.

Levine said it was doubtful Nichols would have been able to persuade the boards to immediately hand over the requested information.

Call me a slowpoke, but I still don't get it. The DWP spends $115 million a year on training and safety. So unless someone can make a compelling case for spending an additional $4 million each year on two nonprofits that refuse to explain themselves, shut them down or, at the very least, stop giving them money.

Thankfully, the commissioners finally got around to doing just that — they voted unanimously to cut off funding, at least temporarily. The commission also did something it should have done a month ago — it decided to stop waiting around and unleashed Galperin to get in there like a pit bull and tear through everything, using subpoena power if necessary. Galperin told me he won't stop at the audit; there's a lot more at DWP he wants to put under a magnifying glass.

One of the more remarkable things about Tuesday's meeting was that no one ever mentioned the elephant in the room. That would be Brian D'Arcy, the IBEW's business manager, a defender of the mysterious nonprofits, and one of the city's political heavyweights.

D'Arcy, you may recall, backed and helped bankroll Wendy Greuel in the last mayoral campaign, and you can bet that hasn't slipped Garcetti's mind.

But D'Arcy, by his defiance, appears to be trying to send a message that he won't bow to anyone. Not Garcetti, not the mayor's new commissioners and not DWP management.

But if that's his gambit, the problem is that in the process of sticking it to them, he's sticking it to us — the ratepayers.

"These games have gone on too long," Galperin told me after Tuesday's meeting.

He's got that right.

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