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GARAGE GATE: The LA Times, Mark Ridley-Thomas & the Scandal that Isn’t

February 14th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon



WHY IS THE LA TIMES STILL REPORTING ON MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS’ GARAGE?

As of this week, the LA Times has published six articles on the matter of installing a tax-payer-funded security system in LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ refurbished garage.

“Garage-Gate” is the way LA Weekly’s Dennis Romero has wryly tagged the Times’ series of provocatively-headlined reports (one of which was even featured on the paper’s front page).

If you somehow have have missed reading this investigative juggernaut, here are a few of the basic facts:

Because they are public figures, the LA County Supervisors are each urged to have security systems installed in their homes at the county’s expense. Gloria Molina has one. So does Don Knabe. Zev Yaroslavsky has a security system that the county put in during his first term and it is reportedly still working just fine. We’re not sure about Mike Antonovich, but it is generally presumed that he has a system too, but that it was put in quite a while ago.

Mark-Ridley Thomas also has a system. His was installed early last October in the converted garage that he has started using as his home office. The Ridley-Thomas system cost the taxpayers of LA County $6,278.61—which is about a thousand dollars less than Molina’s cost. (We don’t know the costs of the other supervisors’ systems.)

It seems, however, that when MRT’s security system was put in, the county workers also mounted a flat screen TV, and installed an air conditioning unit and a 4.3 cu ft. mini-fridge, bringing the total cost of the county’s work to around $10,038.

(If you’re curious, you can see photos of the extra items we’re talking about if you click on the various links above.)

In addition to installing them, the county guys picked up and bought the AC unit, the mini-fridge and the TV.

On October 23—a couple weeks after the work on the garage was completed—the county CEO’s office sent MRT two invoices totaling $3,759.39 for the extra work, and the purchases.

Invoice1
Invoice2

On October 29, the supervisor paid the invoices by check. (The very check in question is pictured at the top of this post.)

End of story, one would think.

But one would be wrong.

The LA Times began reporting on the matter in mid-January in response to a tip.


ITS ALL ABOUT THE WOOD PANELS

January was a busy month, so I didn’t catch up with the reporting on this pressing issue until story number 3, which ran on January 19.

(Here is story 1 and story 2.)

The headline and the subhead for this newest story caught my eye as they seemed to suggest real wrongdoing:

Work at Ridley-Thomas’ residence went beyond security system: taxpayer-funded project to install the system at L.A. County supervisor’s residence included other improvements, interviews and records show.”

When I finished reading the Times’ account, however, I was confused. So where exactly was the….you know….story here?

Although the Times reporters had made public records act requests, the county counsel’s office was slow to hand over the required information. So, the reporters had not yet gotten their hands on any proof of MRT’s reimbursement for the cost of the TV, mini-fridge and AC unit. Still it appears they’d heard about it.

The other issue that that seemed to alarm the Times’ folks was whether or not the county workers really had to take out some wall panelling to install the necessary wiring for the project. (Then, after it was taken out, the missing panelling was replaced with drywall, which then had to be painted.) The workers also dug a trench across the yard to the garage to bury the wiring that brought the necessary power to the outbuilding, a fact that the reporters mentioned several times, suggesting that all this trench digging might be suspicious too.

In an effort to further illuminate the the paneling problem, the LA Times reporters located a security system expert in Tenafly, New Jersey, who opined that the wood paneling likely didn’t really need to be taken down.

That was pretty much all there was when it came to anything that purported to be newsworthy-–although the piece ran more than 1000 words.

Hmmmmm, I thought. As the daughter of a construction engineer, the sister of a mad do-it-yourselfer, and the mother of 28-year-old software engineer who, in his much younger years, did systems wiring for several small companies, I know that, without seeing the actual site, one would be unwise to opine from afar about whether or not one has to take down a section of wall paneling to properly wire a new…anything.

So why in the world did the Times have two reporters chasing this tepid thing, with a third reporter listed as having contributed?

I am not personally acquainted with one of the two reporters who were bylined in the series. But I do know the other to be an excellent journalist whose work I normally admire and respect a great deal.


THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE STEPS IN…OR NOT

When Story number 4 and story number 5 ran about whether or not Ridley-Thomas should have gotten building permits to put in the new system and install the TV or whatever, they seemed to be the same weak soup.

Then finally story number 6 showed up in our LA paper of record this week.

“D.A. probes work on Ridley-Thomas’ garage” the headline announced.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is looking into whether thousands of dollars in taxpayer money was misspent on improvements to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ home last year, an office spokeswoman said Tuesday.

That didn’t sound good. If the DA’s office was looking into the security system hullabaloo, surely there must be something to it.

Looking for clarification, I called the district attorney’s office and talked to their main spokeswoman, Jean Guccione.

Guccione told me that, yes, they were investigating the matter, but they were doing so in response to a citizen’s complaint.

Oh.

So it wasn’t something that they’d initiated on their own because they were concerned that something untoward had gone on?

No, she said. She went on to explain that when a citizen complains about possible wrongdoing, the DA is required to take at least a nominal look to find out if there’s anything to it.

In fairness to the Times, they did mention the citizen complaint angle in their story, but they did so all the way down in paragraph number five and then wrote ominously that the DA’s spokeswoman “declined to elaborate.”

Right.


OTHER GRUMPY JOURNALISTS

Just about the time I was getting irritable regarding this series, both Dennis Romero at the Weekly and Bill Boyarsky at LA Observed were putting together their own thoughts.

Here’s a clip from Romero’s story Why Is the L.A. Times Obsessed With Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Garage?:

The five county supervisors, who represent more constituents than some United States senators, run county government, including the sheriff’s department, probation, child and family services, animal control and more. They’re fair game for a newspaper looking to hold public officials accountable, no doubt.

But the Times seems absolutely obsessed with what amounts to $6,278.61 of your money spent on a security system for Ridley-Thomas’ converted garage-office — even though such security work is allowed under county policy, and even though the reporter who first pursued the story, CBS L.A.’s David Goldstein, essentially passed on it:

County policy entitles the supes to taxpayer-funded security. That includes sheriff’s deputies who escort them to public events, and security systems installed at their homes. The south county’s Ridley-Thomas and east county supervisor Gloria Molina represent the most crime-challenged districts in greater L.A., even as the law requires the two officials to live in the communities from which they were elected.

The $6,278.61 spent on Ridley-Thomas’ home is less than what the Times acknowledges was spent on similar security upgrades to the home of fellow supervisor Molina — $7,406.72 worth.

[GIGANTIC SNIP]

And, in fall, while Mark-Ridley Thomas was getting $6,278.61 worth of home security at your expense, City of Los Angeles taxpayers were footing the bill for about $375,000 worth of improvements to Getty House, the official mayoral residence in Windsor Square, which is operated by a nonprofit group.

That’s 59 times the dollar amount attributed to Ridley-Thomas’ now-controversial garage alarm system.

And now here’s a clip from Boyarsky’s column,Behind the Ridley Thomas garage caper:

Ridley-Thomas told me that when he notified county officials he intended to move his home office, including his county computer, into the garage, they said they would have to revamp his county-supplied home security system. In addition, they said they, themselves, would have to move his county computer, with its high-speed Internet connection, into the new office. They had to do this, they said, to protect the county computer system from hackers.

Besides linking up with the Internet, the high-speed connection reaches the sheriff’s office and other security agencies, Ridley Thomas said. Each task requires wiring. In addition, the alarm system needs a wire to draw power from the home supply. So there must be wiring for a few purposes—high-speed Internet connection, law enforcement notification for emergencies and power for the computer and the security alarm system , Ridley-Thomas explained.

County employees and the contractors looked at the garage wall and said they wouldn’t be able to install so much wiring behind the wall without ripping it out. Since the garage was 30 years old, they said they couldn’t find replacements for the old wooden wall. Let’s hang dry wall over the wiring and paint it, they said. They preferred that solution to hanging the wires on outside of the old wall and covering them with molding. Fine, replied Ridley Thomas.

Reporters Leonard and Pringle quoted number a home security experts who said there was no need to rip out the wall to install wiring for the security system. “Ripping the walls out? That’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Nigel Smithers, Southern California general for Absolute Security Alarms. Ridley-Thomas is angry about the coverage and called me at home, hoping I would look into it. He said it was always clear that he would pay for the air conditioner, television and refrigerator. “This was above board, there was no attempt to hide anything, it was completely appropriate and legitimate,” he said.

The real dispute is over the amount of wiring needed and whether the wall should have been replaced. Was so much wiring required that the contractors had to rip down the wall? Would a cord from Home Depot sufficed? Was taxpayer money wasted?


WHY YOU AND I SHOULD CARE

So why are we writing about this in WitnessLA? After all, we’re a criminal justice news site.

Answer: Because, if as journalists we don’t kindly hold each other to account, who will? And at WLA, we are truly dismayed that the LA Times would spend this much time and reportorial energy attempting make something out of an obvious non-scandal that they, frankly, seem to justify mostly by the use of misleading headlines and very questionable lead paragraphs.

There are so many potential stories of real consequence in our county that are crying out for attention.

(I mean the corruption and malfeasance still awaiting documentation in the LA County Sheriff’s Department, is one….um…random example.)

So we’d like to gently and respectfully say: C’mon guys. You’re much better than this.

We need you to be better than this.


EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s lots more to report on topics other than Mark Ridley-Thomas’ garage. We’ll catch up on those issues Tuesday morning. In the meantime, have a great weekend.

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles Times, writers and writing | 4 Comments »

4 Responses

  1. jim hitchcock Says:

    Close down the Vincent Thomas Bridge at inopportune times for a traffic study, that might get my attention.

  2. February 2014 – Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas Says:

    [...] GARAGE GATE: The LA Times, Mark Ridley-Thomas & the Scandal that Isn’t (LA Witness) [...]

  3. Gabriele Says:

    I think if you talk to your diy brother he might agree with me that installing drywall replacing the wood wall could actually be a SAFETY measure, since wood burns and drywall can act as a flame barrier. With that much wiring behind it, I would be happier with the wood wall gone…especially if it was paneling…which was made before fire resistance was a concern.
    Ive seen some of the old paneling that has been taken down…dry, splintering, and who know what glues were used in its manufacture…
    I imagine the thought of those doing the wiring was convenience and cost (drywall is cheaper and easier and faster) and the idea of surface mounting the wiring ON the paneling (if it was actual wood lumber, my concerns about fire would still apply) covering the wiring would do nothing to create a physical barrier.
    I think rather than talking to a security company, I would have checked with people who do this kind of work for a living, and I’m sure they would have said: drywall.

    I don’t live in R-T’s district but this witch hunt is both stupid and an insult.
    I’d like to tell the reporters to put on their big-boy pants and stop playing at being reporters. There are many more stories with serious issues involved waiting to be told. (Accurately, one would hope).
    I read the story first in LAObserved; I’m glad Bill Boyarsky has found a forum there.
    Thanks for adding all the details. I get the feeling this farce was assigned from on high.

  4. David Vaccaro Says:

    No one seems to be addressing the issue of whether there are any zoning violations here. Is it necessary for additional covered parking to replace the garage? Also there are distances from property lines involved if the use of the building is changed from garage to office. Were permits obtained for the work? Were inspections made?

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