Clearing Up Muddy Water : City official pressures secretive utility for major audit of outside contracts

Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle is at it again. And appropriately so, from the looks of things.

Suspecting widespread and blatant abuses in contracting at the Department of Water and Power, Tuttle has forced this city-run utility to agree to a sweeping audit of the nearly $500 million in outside contracts it grants each year.

The DWP's agreement came last week in the settlement of two lawsuits filed against it by disgruntled contractors. The utility will have an independent auditor examine its contracts to determine whether DWP and city requirements on amounts, durations and bidding are being followed.

The DWP has an unfortunate history of operating in a closed, secretive and sometimes extravagant fashion. The department agreed to the audit only after disturbing reports surfaced, including one that DWP officials tried to evade a city rule requiring all contracts over $100,000 to be approved by the DWP board. A contract for more than $1 million was split into 14 contracts; 12 of these, each for $99,500, went to a single contractor. That's an outrage.

Tuttle claims to have evidence that procedures designed to provide checks and balances are routinely ignored or avoided. "There is a serious question of whether DWP complies with its own and the city's rules and procedures," he said.

Tuttle, whose office pays out money for city departments, has tangled with the DWP before, refusing on several occasions to reimburse high expense claims for travel and entertainment by department officials. The controller has been an impressive watchdog on spending by other city departments, too, raising questions recently about the lax system of accounting for traffic ticket fines and about travel by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, his aides and airport and harbor department officials. Tuttle has also helped cut red tape to speed up badly needed public works projects in the city.

Handling the city's money could be merely a ministerial function. But Tuttle continues to demonstrate that a good controller can--and should--do much more.

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