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Work at Ridley-Thomas' residence went beyond security system

A taxpayer-funded project to provide a home security system for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas included improvements to his converted garage that involved a week of work and upgrades to the building's electrical service, according to interviews and records.

County-paid crews installed the security system in Ridley-Thomas' detached garage, which earlier had been turned into an office, apparently without permits. Workers replaced the garage's interior walls and dug a 60-foot-long trench across the property to bury conduit and make more electrical power available to the structure, the manager of the project said.

In all, about $10,000 worth of work was done at the supervisor's Leimert Park residence as part of the security measures, L.A. County records show.

Supervisors, who make an annual salary of $181,292, are entitled to home security systems provided by the county, but not to unrelated improvements to their property at government expense. Experts on alarm systems said they doubted that all of the work performed last September at Ridley-Thomas' residence was required by the security installation.

John Thompson, who oversaw the work at Ridley-Thomas' property, said that in addition to an alarm system, workers installed a wall-mounted air conditioner and heating unit as well as a refrigerator and flat-screen TV. Thompson, a manager with the county's Internal Services Department, said he suggested the supervisor get the air conditioner because the converted garage was hot inside. He said Ridley-Thomas paid for the cooling-heating unit and the refrigerator, and that he believed the television came from the supervisor's office in the county Hall of Administration.

It is unclear whether Ridley-Thomas reimbursed the county for any other costs.

Thompson said he previously worked on the supervisor's county offices and that Ridley-Thomas asked him to oversee the garage project. "He is the nicest guy," Thompson said. "I will do anything for that guy."

Ridley-Thomas has not responded to questions from The Times for several days.

On Sunday, he declined to talk to two reporters who visited his home, telling them through an intercom, "Please step off my porch."

The Times has asked the county for all records documenting the expenses for the work at supervisors' residences over the last five years. The county has so far released only a handful of heavily redacted documents in connection with Ridley-Thomas' residence, showing the total cost was $10,038. No details of the work were disclosed.

County lawyers said they are still gathering records to comply with The Times' request. Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich said they had no work performed during that period. Supervisor Don Knabe did not recall any work at his home in recent years, according to a spokeswoman. Supervisor Gloria Molina had about $7,400 worth of security work, including the installation of an alarm system and improvements to a gate.

Last week, after a Times report on the work at Ridley-Thomas' residence, the city Building and Safety Department said it had opened an investigation into whether the garage had been improperly converted into an office.

A search of city databases turned up no permits for such a conversion, nor for the work performed by the county.

Thompson said he and the workers removed wood paneling, hung drywall in its place and painted the new surfaces. The air-and-heat unit, which included a condenser placed outside the garage, came from a county supply house, but Ridley-Thomas paid for it, Thompson said. He said he did not know how much the supervisor paid for the unit.

Thompson said he recommended to Ridley-Thomas that the paneling be removed to make it easier to hide wiring in the walls for the alarms. He said dropping the wires behind the existing walls would have been difficult because the space was filled with insulation and would have damaged the wood paneling.

Thompson said he could not find the same style of paneling, so he suggested replacing it with drywall. He said he wanted the result to be appealing to the eye.

"It's a county supervisor and I'm going to make it look nice," Thompson said. "Our function is to keep the supervisors happy. They're our boss."

Thompson said he personally pulled the paneling off the walls on the first day of the job, a Saturday. The following Monday, he said, crews began installing the wiring in the walls. On Tuesday, they started using shovels to dig the 30-inch-deep trench for the electrical line. The drywalling, painting and finishing work were done over the final four days, he said.

Four county employees and two contract workers were on the job at various times, Thompson said. He said he was there all seven days, starting early in the morning. Ridley-Thomas and his family brought the workers lunch on the last day, he said.

Thompson said he believed the county crews did not need permits because they conduct their own inspections. But a spokesman for the city Building and Safety Department said permits were required because the work was done on a private home.

Violators of the permit rules can face fines and can be ordered to correct the work.

Several electrical and security systems experts interviewed by The Times said there was no practical reason for removing or replacing walls to install a security system. They said the thin wiring can be snaked behind existing walls or run in molding.

Jeff Zwirn, a forensic alarm specialist who runs a firm in Tenafly, N.J., that installs alarm systems, said a security company would almost never tear down walls to run the wiring.

"Even if the person is a movie star, we don't take down walls," Zwirn said. "The average customer would never pay to take the walls down to secure the wiring."

Alarm systems, he said, do not use much power and would not require adding a sub-panel, which feeds off the main electrical panel at the house. That electrical work at Ridley-Thomas' home probably significantly increased the cost of the project and might have been needed to run the air-and-heat unit and the refrigerator, Zwirn said.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who studies governmental ethics, said that if the work at Ridley-Thomas' residence was ultimately deemed inappropriate, the supervisor would be responsible, no matter who first suggested the improvements.

"He's not unfamiliar with what it means to be a public official or the state ethics code," Levinson said. "He's the person who said yes to the work. Whether or not the idea started with him, he OK'd the project."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

paul.pringle@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ben Poston contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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