A Los Angeles Municipal Court judge on Wednesday let stand a city subpoena for financial records of a city-funded Africa trade group that figures in the ethics probe of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
Ruling that he lacked jurisdiction in the case, Judge Larry P. Fidler denied a motion by lawyers for Juanita St. John, head of the Task Force for Africa/Los Angeles Relations, who sought to quash a city subpoena that includes personal banking records of St. John and her family.
The ruling was a victory for city auditors, but just what records St. John may be forced to surrender will not be decided until at least Sept. 15. That is when St. John is scheduled to be arraigned on criminal charges in a separate court for failing to comply with the subpoena issued two months ago by City Controller Rick Tuttle.
Tuttle's auditors say they need additional records to determine what happened to the $400,000 in public funds allocated to the task force from 1985 until this summer, when the mayor abruptly withdrew his annual funding request for the group. Of particular interest, officials have said in court documents, is $180,000 in unaccounted-for funds--$115,000 in "cash" withdrawals St. John made from task force accounts and an additional $65,000 in checks written payable to her.
In addition to the city controller, the city attorney and the state attorney general's office are investigating the task force's expenditures. The city attorney, as part of a wide-ranging conflict-of-interest investigation of Bradley, also is exploring the group's relationship with the mayor. For several months, the task force employed Bradley's daughter.
St. John, the task force's $40,000-a-year executive director, is a longtime friend and business partner of the mayor. Bradley, who made the task force a pet project and helped ensure it city funding, has denied doing anything improper.
City officials said interviews with St. John, as well available task force records, indicate that St. John co-mingled personal and task force monies in family checking accounts, including one belonging to her daughter, Kathy, a Bradley staff aide. She has denied any wrongdoing.
"We want to see whether the documents she has been requested to turn over account for the expenditure of city funds," Deputy City Atty. Michael Guarino said after Wednesday's ruling. "She should be as enthusiastic as anyone else about wanting the audit completed."
The task force contract with the city required St. John to maintain a separate account and books for all city funds. While the handling of funds might have violated the city contract, the co-mingling of city and personal monies does not necessarily constitute a crime unless there is intent to convert the funds for personal use, prosecutors familiar with embezzlement law said Wednesday.
St. John's attorneys, who were considering an appeal of Fidler's order, argued Wednesday that the subpoena--one of the few ever issued by the city controller's office--was illegally drafted and an invasion of the privacy of St. John and her family.
In a non-binding advisory ruling, Fidler said Wednesday that while most of Tuttle's subpoena appeared valid, separate subpoenas may be needed to obtain records from St. John's immediate family.
Records filed in court Wednesday also show that city auditors have been attempting to determine whether $50,000 in task force funds may be held in bank time deposits. St. John said the group had such an account at Bank of America, but auditors have been unable to locate it.
The records also show that St. John, who told The Times recently that she had records to support her expenditures, claimed in one interview with auditors that some task force financial records were taken in a burglary several months ago that she failed to report to police.
St. John, who now has personal bankruptcy proceedings pending in federal court, also has a tangled history of financial dealings with UCLA, which provided office space to the task force. Under an agreement reached between Bradley and the university in 1985, city funds were to be deposited in accounts of the university, which would pay St. John's salary and benefits.
Funding Cut Off
But the task force account was repeatedly overdrawn, university records show. The group, whose city funding was cut off this year amid the controversy, still owes the university about $40,000, records show. The task force recently closed its office at UCLA.