LaBonge Questioned Over Possible Misuse of Funds

Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge has served in District 4 since 2001 and will be termed out of office this year. Photo: Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge has served in District 4 since 2001 and will be termed out of office this year. Photo: Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge moved nearly $1.6 million from funds allocated for street, public transit, sidewalk repairs, redevelopment and community services to his office for the purpose of salaries since 2006, with 80% of those transfers occurring since 2012.

LaBonge, who will be termed out of office July 1st, did not respond to a request for clarification or comment on the issue and is in receipt of a California Public Records Request from the Los Feliz Ledger to turn over details on how the funds were used.

In total, LaBonge requested and received Los Angeles City Council approval to move over $1.3 million from three funds to his office’s account for salaries, according to city records. Another $270,000 was transferred, per LaBonge’s request, to the city’s General Purpose Fund, which is used for community services in each council district.

The Ledger identified 10 transfers to the council office’s salary account from 2006 to 2014 that range from $40,000 to $357,000. The latter amount was transferred for such purpose just last year. Other transfers were of $100,000 and $250,000 in some cases.

According to the city data, LaBonge’s office (CD4) had the 2nd highest payroll of all 15 city council districts in 2014 and 2013, at $1,228,000 and $1,646,500, respectively. Only Council District 10 has a slightly higher payroll under councilmember Herb Wesson, who has been the president of the council since the end of 2011.

In 2012, according to city budget records, LaBonge employed six staffers. That number jumped to 10 in 2013 and remained at that level in 2014. However, according to LaBonge’s current city website, his office now has 20 paid positions.

The Ledger also requested Jan. 19th, the council office provide a list of CD4 staff from 2009 to date, including their CD4 title, their title as defined by the city and whether they were employed full or part time.

In a letter received from LaBonge, dated Jan. 29th, he indicated “unusual circumstances” and that a “voluminous amount of separate and distinct records” would have to be examined to fulfill the Ledger’s request. He wrote he would make a final determination on the request on Feb. 12th, which he did not.

However, in an email from LaBonge’s office Feb. 23rd, his current chief of staff Richard Alatorre, redirected the Ledger’s request to the Los Angeles City Clerk’s personnel department.

Neither Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott or Division Manager Shannon Hoppes, have returned calls regarding the public records request.

Council offices, including CD4, mostly use city funds such as the “Street Furniture Revenue Fund,” the “Pipeline Franchise Revenue Fund,” and AB1290 appropriately for specific projects including sidewalk repair, the creation of medians, or for transit and traffic studies.

According to the Ledger analysis, in some cases, LaBonge has provided details for such transfers, including for an overgrown tree to be removed from Los Feliz Boulevard; for curb and gutter repairs on Fountain Avenue between June and Seward streets and for a consultant’s study for sidewalk improvements for the Larchmont Business Improvement District, for example.

But in 10 transfers analyzed by the Ledger, no specifics were provided regarding what the funds would be used for, just that they would be used for salaries.

Current Los Angeles City Council candidate, Carolyn Ramsay, who was LaBonge’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2010 and then again when most of the transfers occurred, from 2012 until 2014, did not return calls for comment. LaBonge has endorsed Ramsay in her campaign to succeed him as councilmember.

The issue came to light first in January after Hancock Park Homeowner’s Association President Cindy Chvatal requested information on LaBonge’s spending habits after he indicated to her funds were not available to repair eight intersections in Hancock Park with concrete, as is required by the area’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zone ordinance (HPOZ).

The city’s costs to repair each intersection, ranged in price with half estimated each between $6,500 to $19,000 and the rest between $36,000 and $93,000. According to Chvatal, the neighborhood has waited seven years for the repairs.

Chvatal had become incensed the council office on Jan. 8th of this year used $20,000 in public funds for an “Elvis Presley Birthday Celebration.”

Chvatal called that a “slap in the face,” but is angrier that LaBonge approved $100,000 in 2012 for the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Woman and Children’s Hawkes Transitional Residence, located in Council District 13.

“That’s a very good organization,” Chvatal said, “but it’s not even in Council District 4.”

Chvatal sent the council office her own public records request in late January, including a request it turn over emails related to such transfers.

The California Public Records Request requires a governmental agency to respond within 10 days of receipt if the requested information can easily be provided. If an agency believes the request voluminous or if other “unusual circumstances” exist, it can request an additional 14 days to respond with written notice. According to the government code, an agency cannot use these time periods to delay access to records.

In response to Chvatal’s request Jan. 26th for council office emails, city officials have indicated all public records requests related to email have been “suspended” because the city’s email “system is no longer able to handle complex searches.”

According to Agnes Lung-Tam, with the city’s information technology department, all requests of this nature have been suspended until mid-June.

LaBonge’s office also dodged a different public records request by the Los Feliz Ledger related to its “Sister Cities” initiative. In that request, dated Feb. 13th, Kamilla Blanche, who oversees the initiative and works out of LaBonge’s office, said the requested information would be provided but only “after the [May 19th] election.” After numerous requests, the Ledger still has not been provided that information.

In addition to CD4’s “Sister Cities Initiative,” LaBonge is the president of a second organization, a non-profit 501(c)(3), called Sister Cities of Los Angeles Inc. Charitable organizations of that category are barred from political activity.

The city’s so called “Street Furniture Revenue Fund,” has received between $2 million and $5 million a year since 2001 from advertising revenue generated on various “street furniture,” such as kiosks and bus shelters. The city has 1,800 such bus shelters and 187 kiosks throughout Los Angeles. The funds, according to a spokesperson with the city’s Bureau of Street Services who oversees the program, are then split amongst the city’s 15 council districts. Unused funds, the official said, are rolled over to the following year.

“It’s a discretionary fund,” said the city official. “Each council office gets to pick and choose how they use it. It’s very loosely interpreted.”

According to city officials, the Street Furniture Fund received a flush of money last year of $5.2 million. This year, it has already received a little under $3 million.

Only once, according to an analysis, thus far, by the Ledger, did one of LaBonge’s requests for a transfer of money from the three questioned funds fail. That was in one council motion, dated 2012, when LaBonge requested $250,000 be transferred from AB1290to a “Salaries – General” account. The motion was first approved and later rescinded to have the funds moved instead to accompany another $250,000 moved from AB1290 and motioned on the same day, to the city’s General Purposes Fund.

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