City Controller Wendy Greuel released an audit Thursday showing that about 1,000 parking citations were dismissed over a two-year period under an obscure program that seemed designed to encourage the worst kind of City Hall patronage, if not outright corruption. Under the scheme, the mayor, City Council members and other city officials received “Gold Cards”; on the back of the cards was a phone number that recipients could call to reach a little-known desk where specialists at the Department of Transportation would expedite a review of the ticket.
Transportation officials insisted this was all on the up and up. They said the program was open to anyone (not just, say, people who donated to the mayor’s campaign fund or friends of transportation managers). And Greuel’s office turned up no evidence that it had been abused by City Hall insiders. But it did find that it was a shadowy program to say the least; after taking a close look at 40 tickets dismissed by the special “Gold Card Desk,” auditors found that in 90% of those cases, there was no paper trail showing why the citation was tossed out or which official used the service.
And make no mistake, this was a program reeking of favoritism. Despite protests that the Gold Card Desk was meant to help L.A. residents cut through bureaucratic red tape, the reality is that few people were aware of its existence. Instead, the program created a big temptation for city officials to give friends and insiders a privilege not enjoyed by the public. That’s never a good idea.
After the news broke, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office rushed to defend the Gold Card program and to snipe at Greuel, claiming that she knew about and used the program during her earlier term on the City Council. That hardly seems germane; it’s her new job to uncover improprieties, even those she may have taken advantage of in her old job. Greuel, meanwhile, claims she was unaware of the program during her years on the council.
Villaraigosa reversed himself Friday, sending a letter to interim Transportation Department chief Amir Sedadi ordering him to discontinue the Gold Card Desk immediately because “even the appearance of preferential treatment is unacceptable.” Left unmentioned by the mayor is that the audit showed his office and those of City Council members used the Gold Card program hundreds of times. Villaraigosa spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton says that while the mayor’s staff might have done so, Villaraigosa had never heard of the program until Thursday.
Well, at least he got it right the second time.