At Least 113 Boxes Ordered Destroyed by LaBonge
LOS ANGELES—Over 100 filled boxes with documents from outgoing Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge’s office were moved from his City Hall suite in June and transported to the city’s records manager with the notation the contents be destroyed and burned.
The destruction of the documents, detailed in public records obtained by a Los Feliz resident through a California Public Records request and forwarded to the Ledger, was ordered by LaBonge’s secretary Juliette Durand June 12th, June 14th and June 26th, just prior to the long-term councilmember’s last day in office June 30th.
The paperwork asked that 90, 10 and 13 boxes be picked up from LaBonge’s council office and taken to a city facility, called Piper Technical Center, located just east of downtown, for destruction, specifically to be burned.
The issue of missing files from LaBonge’s office has been ongoing and rumored since newly elected Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu took office July 1st. Ryu beat LaBonge’s hand chosen successor, his former Chief of Staff Carolyn Ramsay, in an election for the council seat last May.
In a strange twist, however, 35 boxes earmarked for destruction have been salvaged.
According to multiple sources, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office has had those boxes in their office since the first week of July after a staffer stumbled upon them accidentally while seeking CD4 litigation documents from Piper, where city archives are also kept.
Still, a total of 78 boxes from LaBonge’s office shipped to Piper are unaccounted for.
“They would have been destroyed,” said Todd Gaydowski the city’s records management officer.
But according to Gaydowski there still may be more.
According to Gaydowski, LaBonge had sent a slow dribble of boxes, 10 and sometimes 20 at a time, to Piper for destruction the last six months he was in office. Additionally, he said, at times, LaBonge would bring the boxes to Piper himself.
Gaydowski, however, said he is uncertain of the quanity of boxes LaBonge’s requested destroyed, as his department does not keep a log of boxes coming in for destruction.
Whether or not LaBonge has engaged in a crime is uncertain. According to Gaydowski, the mayor’s office and the city’s 15 city councilmembers can destroy documents without any questions asked. Other city departments, however, cannot.
In the latter instance, departments must file paperwork for how long such records, police files for instance, must be retained, which then trips a date when they can be destroyed. For those non-elected personnel, records earmarked for destruction must be approved by the Los Angeles City Council and must be made available for 60 days to allow the public the opportunity of viewing them.
When asked why elected city council members and Los Angeles mayors were not held to the same standard as hired city employees regarding the destruction of public documents, Gaydowski had no comment. He simply shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
According to to Gaydowski, documents received for destruction by his facility are sent off site for shredding. The term “burn,” he said, is colloquial only and does not mean the records are incinerated.
A former LaBonge staffer, who has asked to remain anonymous, has already indicated LaBonge instructed staff to destroy the records for two reasons.
There was “lots of wrong doing and [LaBonge] wanted to make sure that was covered [up] plus make sure that Ryu would have to start from scratch,” the staffer wrote in an email on the subject received by the Ledger.
The former staffer has also said the help of multiple agencies were sought by LaBonge staff last year, including the City Ethics Commission, the City Clerk and the city’s department of human resources, over what they believed was misconduct occurring in LaBonge’s office, but that their requests for help was ignored.
The Ledger as well as Los Feliz resident Michael Miller, a former city attorney for multiple Southern California cities, were denied a California Public Records request by the City Ethics Commission for any grievances filed against LaBonge from 2012 until he left office. Miller said he intends to sue for the documents.
Further collaboration of the staff tossing documents into boxes, with the intention they be destroyed, was additionally confirmed today by an forgotten, saved voice-mail left behind on one of LaBonge’s former staffer’s telephones that a current Ryu staffer is now assigned to. The voice mail was forwarded to the Ledger.
In the message, dated June 25th, former LaBonge council aide Leslie Shim is heard leaving a message for former LaBonge deputy, Ben Seinfeld, that everyone is looking for him “especially Tom and if you can, please hurry back to City Hall right now as we are cleaning everything out.”
Attempts to reach Shim today were unsuccessful. Multiple attempts to reach LaBonge have also been unsuccessful.
It’s not clear if LaBonge’s staffers could be held complicit in the destruction of public documents.
“Apparently, there was a direct demand by LaBonge to get the pitchforks out and start tossing stuff into the fire,” said Pasadena based attorney Robert Silverstein. “Clearly the buck stops with him.”
According to both Silverstein and another attorney, Michael Overing, who teaches media law at USC and whose practice specializes in 1st Amendment issues, all documents in LaBonge’s office, destroyed or otherwise, are the public’s.
“The destruction of public documents can be a felony,” Overing said. “[The city has an] obligation as agents of the public. . . . If they can simply destroy these documents without impunity, that smacks of bad faith.”
Overing suggested an independent committee be formed to investigate the LaBonge’s documents as well as the city’s processes overall. Both attorneys said LaBonge’s conduct was outrageous.
Half of the salvaged 35 boxes were moved today to councilmember Ryu’s office with the remainder coming by Friday. According to Ryu spokesperson, Estevan Montemayor, the office is currently redacting any personal information contain in the documents, such as social security numbers or home addresses, and will make them available to the public soon.
Ryu authored a motion in December for the City Attorney’s office to create procedures for transitioning councilmembers, including the sharing of information and documents. Currently, only the mayor’s office has such protocol.
“This is exactly why we put forth that motion,” Ryu spokesperson Montemayor said.
This story was updated at 7:05 p.m.
Read attorney Robert Silverstein’s take on the LaBonge documents issue as well as his concern that some documents have been at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office since last July.