The calls from livid constituents to Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz's Panorama City office complaining about upcoming cuts in benefits for the aged and the disabled began pouring in late last week.
This week, as the calls swelled into a tide, Katz's staff investigated and found that the Social Security Administration office in Van Nuys was telling outraged recipients that Katz and two other Democratic state legislators were responsible for the impending reductions. The names of Republican legislators representing the area were not given out.
In fact, Katz and the two other legislators--Assemblyman Tom Bane (D-Tarzana) and state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys)--opposed the Nov. 1 benefit reduction, which was pushed by Republican state legislators and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson during the late-summer budget negotiations.
On Wednesday, Katz faxed a sternly worded letter to Thomas F. Connell, the manager of the Social Security office in Van Nuys, demanding an apology and threatening to launch an investigation.
"I am outraged by what I believe to be totally inappropriate, factually incorrect and possibly illegal activity" occurring at the Van Nuys Social Security office, the letter said. "I shudder to think how many good people received bad information."
The cuts reduce the so-called SSI/SSP benefits of a single aged or disabled person living alone in Los Angeles from $645 to $608 per month, part of which comes from the state General Fund and part from the federal government. The federal portion will increase in January, resulting in a monthly income of $625. About 1 million California residents receive the payments.
In a response to Katz, Connell apologized "for any action we have taken . . . that implied you were responsible for the recent cuts" in benefits.
He said the staff's intent was "only to give out the local representative's name when claimants insisted on knowing to whom they could turn to express their concerns."
But Katz said he suspects partisan politics were at work and called for an investigation into whether the actions violated laws prohibiting federal employees from engaging in political activities.
He said he did not mind people being told to contact his office as long as they were given a bipartisan list of local legislators.
Connell denied any political motivation for the actions of his staff. In an interview, he said staff members were instructed to tell claimants angered by the pending benefit cut how to contact their local state representatives.
Bane, Roberti and Katz's districts are in close proximity. But Katz said the Van Nuys Social Security office serves a 20-mile radius that also is represented by Assembly members Paula L. Boland (R-Granada Hills), Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) and Pat Nolan (R-Glendale).
Roberti's office received about 40 calls complaining about the benefit cuts.
"These reductions were proposed by Gov. Wilson and . . . opposed by Sen. Roberti and most of the Legislature for months," said Roberti spokesman Steven Glazer. "It seems this office is only giving part of the story and is therefore enormously misleading about the true cause of these reductions."
A spokesman for Bane's office said they also had received numerous complaints.
Katz said some of those who called his office were so upset they threatened his life or to kill themselves to get their point across.
"The response has been very, very heavy on our phones and in our office" as a result of letters sent out explaining the benefit reductions, Connell said. "Some would insist on knowing: 'What do I do? Who do I turn to?' "
Now, Connell said, representatives at his office will no longer respond by giving out the names or telephone numbers of any state officials. Instead, they will tell concerned benefit recipients to contact the governor's office or their local representative.