A day after Los Angeles officials publicly disclosed the existence of a little-known parking citation system that had long been available to the mayor and City Council, the program came to a swift end Friday.
On the heels of an audit in which City Controller Wendy Greuel singled out the ticket review program for its lax oversight and potential for misuse, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for an immediate end to it.
"Discontinue the Gold Card Desk immediately," Villaraigosa directed in a letter to the city transportation department's interim general manager, Amir Sedadi. The mayor also told Sedadi to "establish a uniform system accessible to everyone for contested parking citation intake and adjudication."
Although aides to Villaraigosa acknowledged that some office staff had used the Gold Card Desk to help constituents, the mayor's letter stated that "every member of the public deserves equal treatment and even the appearance of preferential treatment is unacceptable."
The transportation department released a statement Friday saying Sedadi had "already taken action to discontinue the Gold Card Desk" and that his staff was working with the contractor running the program "to create a plan in line with the mayor's request."
Other officials at City Hall vowed to investigate the desk as well.
City Councilman Dennis Zine, head of the council's Audit and Governmental Efficiency Committee, said he would bring up the issue at Tuesday's committee meeting. "I've got some serious questions about the documentation, who's making the requests, and whether the requests are justified," Zine said. "We need to get all the answers so there's transparency."
According to Greuel's audit, the roughly 20-year-old special program was designed to allow aides to the mayor and City Council to expedite parking citation reviews for constituents and possibly have fines reduced or eliminated.
Greuel's audit found that about 1,000 citations over two years had been dismissed through the desk — some without justification and others with dubious explanations.
The Times inspected a sampling of the citations Friday and found that some bore little or no explanation for dismissal.
The majority of the documents were emails to the Gold Card Desk with the name of the sender blacked out. Some of the citation appeals listed an "importance" level as "high" and most contained only brief descriptions and requests for fine waivers or reductions.
"For the above citation, please waive the penalties and issue a refund in the amount of $80 to the citizen. No proof of payment is necessary," one correspondence said.
Another had only citation numbers and a directive to refund $50 and cancel the scheduled appeals hearing.
In his letter to Sedadi, Villaraigosa said he also asked Greuel to hire an independent consultant to conduct a "top to bottom management review" of the transportation department, which has been targeted by Greuel in recent audits.
The first, published in April, showed that the department missed up to $15 million in revenue because the department had gone easy on chronic scofflaws who racked up multiple unpaid parking tickets. Last week's audit was the second, and Greuel — a possible candidate for mayor when Villaraigosa is termed out in 2013 — chastised the Gold Card Desk because there were "no specific policies to guide the review of these citations," opening the door for "inappropriate cancellations."
A plastic parking bureau Gold Card was apparently distributed to city offices and included a special phone number for a holder who had an "urgent need to resolve any parking citation matter which requires special attention." The card promised that "you will be immediately connected to our Gold Card Specialist."
The audit also found that the transportation department pays the ticket-handling contractor, Affiliated Computer Services, to process citations even when they have been voided because of a mistake or error, and that it failed to aggressively pursue collections from vehicles used by public safety employees with "protective plates" such as firefighters and police officers.
The audit Thursday also touched off some political sparks as aides in the mayor's office challenged Greuel's claim that the former council member had only learned about the program during the audit.
The mayor's office released information that Greuel's former council office had used the service and in an email argued she was "fully aware of the Gold Card Desk."
Greuel on Friday deflected the criticism and maintained that she had no knowledge of the desk while on the council.
"Clearly my audit has struck a nerve," Greuel said. "My goal is to be completely transparent. Unfortunately when you're the messenger of bad news, they want to kill the messenger."
Greuel plans to continue her examination of the city's transportation department with a third audit expected to be released in June. This one will deal with the city's administration of parking meters.