Tossed Documents Beg Questions Re: LaBonge Spending

Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge District 4 during the City Council meeting at City Hall, in Los Angeles, CA March 3, 2012. Photo by Francine Orr

Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge District 4 during the City Council meeting at City Hall, in Los Angeles, CA March 3, 2012. Photo by Francine Orr

LOS ANGELES—Thirty-five boxes of former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge’s public records that were previously marked for destruction were made available to the public and the news media in February, and some cast light on the inner workings of the council office, which has been described by some former staffers as “chaotic” at the end of LaBonge’s 14 years in office.

Dozens of local media—including radio, print and broadcast outlets—reviewed the documents in a conference room at City Hall. According to current Councilmember David Ryu’s head of communications, Estevan Montemayor, the salvaged documents will now be archived for at least two years, which is city protocol.

In all, two multiple-page LaBonge reelection campaign documents, thousands of pages of emails and travel receipts related to LaBonge’s Sister Cities initiative and spreadsheets detailing discretionary fund spending, staff salaries and office budgets were discovered amongst the documents, as well as numerous boxes of land-use documents.

One recovered spreadsheet revealed LaBonge used $350,000 in discretionary funds from 2010 to 2013 on salaries for what he called his “Beautification Team.”

According to multiple sources, LaBonge paid a handful of paid city staffers extra to pick up trash and clean up graffiti in the council district.

Documents also revealed two email exchanges between a high level staffer with the city’s Chief Legislative Office and a LaBonge staffer indicating he had made deposits in the amounts of $2,125 and $20 into a Sister Cities banking account of donations received by LaBonge.

It is legal, according to non-profit experts, to have a non-profit organization housed in a government office, provided there is no interplay between the two.

A request for comment from Avak Keotahian, who wrote the emails indicating the deposits, was not returned.

Also among the found files, were excel worksheets that appear to be working documents tinkering with ideas, including the use of discretionary funds, for how to make up a 2010-2011 budget shortfall of $148,000 for LaBonge’s staff and a long-term contract with a public relations specialist.

The misuse of discretionary funds, which is typically earmarked for repairs for infrastructure like repairing streets, potholes or the creation of medians, became an issue last year when it was revealed LaBonge moved over $1.7 million in such funds—including the $350,000 for his “beautification team”—over a two year period for the purpose of staff salaries.

According to public records, LaBonge ordered at least 113 boxes of records destroyed in the months prior to his leaving office last June 30th. The handful made public last month were discovered accidentally by a deputy city attorney last June and were sent to LaBonge’s successor, Ryu, in January.

It is believed all documents but those found in the 35 boxes have been shredded, which is against both city municipal code and California law.

The missing documents have enraged at least two attorneys that are currently involved in litigation with the city over land use issues.

LaBonge, as well as former staffer Sheila Irani and Renee Weitzer, who worked for LaBonge and now for Ryu, will be deposed in March regarding the missing documents relative to one case involving a couple who have been denied city and court approval to build a 8,000 square foot home in the Hollywood Hills.

Pasadena based Attorney Robert Silverstein is also seeking information pertaining to missing LaBonge files regarding litigation against the city regarding homeowners who are fighting a Sherman Oaks development.

Currently, the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council has passed a motion, in part requesting an outside investigator look into the matter citywide. Additionally, Ryu has authored a motion requesting the city create protocol for council offices that transition from one administration to another.

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