By Paul Pringle and Jack Leonard
January 22, 2014
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas acknowledged Tuesday that a taxpayer-funded project to install a security system in a converted garage at his home involved improvements "over and above" that job, but said he reimbursed the county for the upgrades.
The Times had disclosed that county-paid crews worked at the supervisor's Leimert Park home for a week and replaced the garage's interior walls, installed electrical wiring and equipment, and put in appliances, including a wall-mounted air conditioner and heater and a television.
Ridley-Thomas has declined repeated requests from The Times to comment on the project, and the county has not released any documentation of reimbursements.
In an interview on radio station KCRW-FM (89.9), Ridley-Thomas said he repaid the county nearly $4,000 for the cost of the appliances and extra labor. He did not offer a breakdown of the reimbursements or say when he made them.
The county has provided to The Times heavily redacted records that list the cost of the security work at $10,038. It was unclear whether that amount accounted for any reimbursements.
In the segment on KCRW's "Which Way L.A.," Ridley-Thomas said the garage had been converted before he bought the home more than 20 years ago. A check of city databases turned up no permits for the conversion or for the more recent work by the county.
Ridley-Thomas did not address why the county project was done without permits. Last week, after a Times report on the garage work, the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department opened an investigation into the conversion.
Department spokesman Luke Zamperini said Tuesday that the inquiry was ongoing. He said current owners of a home must obtain permits for a garage conversion even if the work was done before they bought the house.
Zamperini also said the work performed in September by the county on Ridley-Thomas' garage required permits. The manager of the project had told The Times he believed the county crews needed no permits because they are authorized to inspect their own work.
Ridley-Thomas criticized The Times for publishing stories on the security project "half cocked," saying the county had told the newspaper it was still gathering documents in response to a request under the state's Public Records Act.
"Rather than waiting for the facts to reveal themselves, the Times reporters have chosen to engage in what is reducible to innuendo, to smear and is short on fact," he said during the radio interview. "They chose to start writing before they had the facts and they've gotten a number of facts wrong, straight-out wrong."
When asked by program host Warren Olney to identify errors in the reporting, Ridley-Thomas said: "They keep making a point of what was supposedly done over and above that which is defined as security. Everything that was done over and above that was paid for. It's documented."
The Times submitted its records request a month ago asking for documents showing work done at the homes of all five county supervisors during the last five years. The county said it was continuing to search for records.
The Times has reported that the project manager, John Thompson, who works for the county Internal Services Department, said Ridley-Thomas paid for the air-and-heat unit and a refrigerator the crews installed. Another person familiar with the work, who asked not to be named, said he was told Ridley-Thomas paid for the television as well.
The county crews, which included contract workers, tore out wood paneling in the garage and replaced it with drywall, Thompson said. They dug a 60-foot-long, 30-inch-deep trench across Ridley-Thomas' property to run electrical conduit from the main house to the garage, Thompson said, and installed an electrical subpanel in the garage to make more power available to the structure.
Thompson said he suggested replacing the paneling because that would make it easier to run wiring behind the walls for the security alarms. In addition, he said the result would be more pleasing to the eye.
He said he recommended installing the air conditioner because the garage was hot.
Alarm experts said in interviews that the security system probably could have been put in without removing walls or adding an electrical subpanel.
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who studies governmental ethics, said it was troubling that an elected official would use government workers to perform work on a private residence, even if the official reimbursed taxpayers.
"The question becomes, 'What else would the workers be doing at that time?'" Levinson said. "Does reimbursement make the taxpayer whole? Is fair-market value paid?
"Our public officials should not appear to be using their position for their own benefit. These accusations are dispiriting to people who don't have access to county workers to improve their residences."
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