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Ex-interns defend City Council candidate accused of misusing nonprofit

Ex-interns dispute allegations that L.A. City Council candidate blurred line between campaign, nonprofit work

In reaction to allegations that Los Angeles City Council candidate Tomas O'Grady blurred the lines between his nonprofit and his campaign, several former interns and current contractors said they have not personally seen any improper mixing between the two organizations.

"Tomas keeps it very separate," said Alexys Thomas, a garden ranger and former summer intern with the nonprofit EnrichLA, which builds school gardens and has long been run by O'Grady.

Thomas, a paid contractor for the nonprofit, said she had done a minimal amount of volunteering for the campaign. "He doesn't demand for anyone to do it. It's on a volunteer basis," she said.

The Times reported last week on allegations raised by two former interns who took their concerns to the city Ethics Commission last year.

The two said they sought internships with EnrichLA, but were subsequently asked and agreed to take on campaign work. O'Grady is among more than a dozen candidates vying to replace City Councilman Tom LaBonge in District 4, which stretches from Sherman Oaks to the Miracle Mile. Until recently, his nonprofit and his campaign were both headquartered at the same location — O'Grady's home in Los Feliz.

The former interns, Ana Greenberger and Izzy Armenta, received payments from both organizations but said campaign work took up most of their time. They also said that an EnrichLA debit card was repeatedly used to buy campaign supplies. Under federal law, charitable nonprofits like EnrichLA are prohibited from helping political candidates.

O'Grady and his staff have denied those claims, saying that Greenberger was "disgruntled" after being criticized for her work. (Greenberger has said that was not the case.) They maintained that the card was used only once, erroneously, on campaign supplies and that the money was returned — a transaction documented in campaign filings as a reimbursement of roughly $360 to EnrichLA.

The Ethics Commission has not announced any action against the O'Grady campaign. After The Times published its story, O'Grady emphasized that other former interns do not make the same claims as Greenberger and Armenta. Thomas and four other former EnrichLA interns referred by the organization, Madeline Gaynor, Marion Patricio, Edgar Arellano and Janice Choi, said they had never seen the EnrichLA debit card used for the campaign.

"I didn't see anything that was questionable," said Choi, who interned with the nonprofit last summer and is now contracted with EnrichLA as a garden ranger. She said she had never done campaign work and never been asked to do so.

Patricio, who originally got involved with EnrichLA as an unpaid intern and is now volunteering for the campaign, said she offered to help with O'Grady's election bid. She said that after the city ethics agency contacted O'Grady, he reminded staffers and volunteers to keep the two operations separate.

Patricio added that in repeated instances last year when she tried to ask an EnrichLA employee about campaign issues, O'Grady chastised her, once saying, "'No, she's doing EnrichLA, don't ask her about the campaign.' To me there was always a very clear line." Patricio interned for the nonprofit after Greenberger and Armenta left.

Arellano, now a paid EnrichLA project assistant, said that when he arrived in the fall, laptops and other supplies were labeled to indicate whether they belonged to the nonprofit. He said that when he was an unpaid intern, O'Grady asked him to volunteer with the campaign during his free time and he "gladly agreed."

City records and documents shared by Greenberger indicate that besides sharing an address, the two groups shared some workers and volunteers, including an EnrichLA employee who volunteered at one point as campaign treasurer. Though O'Grady said he had previously taken steps to clearly separate the campaign and the nonprofit, including running separate Wi-Fi networks and having signs labeling where each group was operating, EnrichLA said it was relocating last week to donated space at a school.

Experts also said the EnrichLA board appears to have violated state requirements restricting the percentage of employees and their relatives on charity boards. O'Grady said he was unaware of those rules and would seek legal advice before the nonprofit formed a new board.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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