L.A. County supervisor gives his side of the story

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas greeted me warmly Monday afternoon, even though I’d come to hear him explain why he used $25,000 in taxpayer money to buy a place in “Who’s Who in Black Los Angeles.” I wanted to ask him whether his decision to buy the spread had anything to do with the fact that the book’s associate publisher has made campaign donations to the supervisor and is a longtime ally.

But first Ridley-Thomas wanted to give me a tour of his office, which he had intended to refurbish at a cost of $707,000 — until the project made the news. To be honest, the office looked fine to me. Not quite as impressive as others I’ve been in, like Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s tidy little clubhouse next door, but nice enough.

The upgrades are on hold now, Ridley-Thomas said, while the county tries to fill a $500-million budget gap with service cuts and the firing of 100 employees. After our tour, during which Ridley-Thomas introduced me to virtually every member of his staff, we went to a large meeting room where 10 of his top deputies waited. Although I’d already met many of them, Ridley-Thomas had them all introduce themselves.

When that was done, I assumed he and I would retreat to his office to talk business. But he said no, our meeting was to be held in the company of the 10 deputies. Well, OK, but I had to wonder how much time is wasted in that office if 10 top deputies had nothing better to do than watch me interview their boss.

So, about that $25,000 of taxpayer money, I began. Ridley-Thomas said buying space in “Who’s Who” was intended to “help tell the story” of the history of the African American experience in Los Angeles. He referred to an entry in the volume titled “A Legacy of Pride: A History of Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital.”

I haven’t read that part, but I sure hope it explains that not everything that happened at the hospital was a matter of pride. Ultimately, it was shut down because the Board of Supervisors, pre-Ridley-Thomas, had let the place deteriorate horribly. Patients were dying because of negligence, incompetence and mismanagement.

Ridley-Thomas has a long commitment to public health among many other causes, and, to his credit, he’s trying to restore the hospital to its original glory. But I don’t know if a history lesson in a $34.95 “Who’s Who” is going to help the cause.

The $25,000, as first reported by my colleague Garret Therolf, also paid for some county advertising and features on Ridley-Thomas and a dozen other county officials. Ridley-Thomas told me it was worth honoring those county employees because many in the African American community “don’t know” there are black people “in positions of leadership” in the county.

I thought he must be kidding, but he said he wasn’t. I suggested that it might be cheaper to use his newsletter to break the news, rather than “Who’s Who,” especially since I don’t think anybody’s buying the book unless they’re featured in it.

I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that the associate publisher of “Who’s Who,” Anthony Samad, happens to be a longtime friend of Ridley-Thomas. But I was a little rattled to discover when I looked up campaign contributions that Samad donated $1,250 to Ridley-Thomas’ campaign in 2007 and 2008. And that’s not all.

I also laid my hands on a document showing that Samad had been awarded a $24,999 consulting contract in 2002 by the city of Los Angeles, at the behest of then-Councilman Ridley-Thomas. The contract was for “expertise the council member needs … that is not otherwise available.”

Ridley-Thomas told me he didn’t remember such a contract. Next, I asked if he remembered that Samad had been sentenced to prison in 1990 after pleading guilty to three counts of defrauding a savings and loan company he worked for; Ridley-Thomas said that was a long time ago. He said that Samad, who used to go by the name Anthony Essex, had rehabilitated himself and had ably served the local NAACP chapter.

Samad told me he recalled exactly why he got the contract from the city, of which, he said, only half was paid. He said Ridley-Thomas wanted him to revive the Leimert Park Village Community Development Corp.

Samad, an East L.A. College instructor, argued that people are not charged to be featured in “Who’s Who.” But he conceded that if they buy space to advertise a company or public agency, they can also get some bios and mugs published, as did Ridley-Thomas and the L.A. Department of Water and Power, which paid $22,500 to “Who’s Who in Black Los Angeles” the last two years.

In my humble opinion, it’s bad judgment to use ratepayer money or taxpayer money on a vanity publication, period. And with the supervisors, the problem starts with their so-called discretionary funds, which allow each of them to spend $3.4 million a year on worthy projects of their choice.

Ridley-Thomas argued that lots of great nonprofit agencies receive discretionary funds from supervisors to do AIDS education, violence intervention, early education and on and on. Sure, a lot of the projects are worthy, but the money also enables the supes to spread an awful lot of cheer that makes them tough to beat at election time. And why would any of us want a county supervisor to decide what charitable donations to make with our money?

By tradition, the supervisors don’t challenge each other’s picks and there’s little public scrutiny of a discretionary fund that currently contains about $27 million in funds from this year and unspent money from previous years for the five supes.

“That’s the tradition — you approve mine, I’ll approve yours,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who agreed that “people have abused” the practice. As for “Who’s Who,” she said of Ridley-Thomas’ $25,000, “I don’t think that was the intent of what these dollars were for.”

So why then won’t one of the five of them end the free-for-all or at least call for some reforms? I contacted all five offices trying to find one brave man or woman to embrace my idea: Forfeit what’s in the funds now and use it to avoid cuts to libraries, public health, social services and parks.

“I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request,” said Molina, but she didn’t think such a call would get much support. She said she’s going to use discretionary funds to cover some of the projected cuts to county libraries.

After my session with Ridley-Thomas, he insisted that I pose for a photo with him and his staff. I wasn’t too comfortable with the idea, to be honest. I mean, what if the picture ends up in next year’s “Who’s Who”?