Column: DWP Scandal Blacks Out LA Leaders

We don’t rest on our laurels in the Los Angeles Carnival of Greed and Corruption.

Second stringers are satisfied with bronze or silver; Champions strive for gold.

I didn’t plan on writing about the LA Department of Water and Power today, which had hit the headlines again thanks to a plea in a bribe and kickback case that reached the top of DWP management.

I was busy with other things. I checked the city records that 18 members of the Los Angeles Fire Department evacuated more than $ 500,000 each between January and September of this year, including overtime and benefits.

Quite a lot, because Christmas is just around the corner.

But then I was distracted by the head-clapping story by Times writers Kevin Rector and Richard Winton about the manager of a Los Angeles Police College gun shop who was accused of stealing guns from the shop and selling them to police officers, among others.

Yes indeed. And thanks in part to an apparent lack of supervision by the LAPD, the case now concerns “allegations of criminal activities, misconduct and corruption on the part of officers and commanders”.

All good, tempting fodder, sure, and we’re just six weeks away from allegations of corruption against Mark Ridley-Thomas, the LA councilman – a one-time candidate for mayor – who denies the allegations against him.

But these things can be kept in the closet. I feel particularly connected to the DWP scandal because it is of course the DWP. And because I will never forget my 2015 visit to the Van Nuys apartment of a couple who reached into their mailbox and found a DWP bill for $ 51,649.32.

Savely and Stella Goreshter, Russian immigrants who were afraid of losing their home and all their belongings to pay the bill, told me they had inquired whether the DWP might have made an accounting mistake.

No chance, they were told. A DWP employee suggested that they may have a leaking toilet.

Something was leaking, sure, but it wasn’t the Goreshters’ toilet. It was the last ounce of trust the installment payers had in the DWP, which was in the midst of a fiasco in the billing system that seems to be endless.

A DWP plan to upgrade the agency’s billing system became an absolute disaster, with thousands of customers being over-billed or not billed at all. This soufflé resulted in an agreement in a class action lawsuit by fee payers – an agreement that was suspicious from the start and where attorneys at the time told me that something did not smell right. In essence, critics claimed that the fee payers were frozen while lawyers hired by the city to clean up the chaos that were made out like bandits.

Did I say bandits?

In this week’s latest twist, reported by Dakota Smith and Julia Wick, a lawyer at the center of the debacle agreed to plead guilty of bribery in a kickback program and is cooperating with the prosecutor on the ongoing federal criminal investigation.

The details of the intricate case create a clutter that is not easy to clean up. It kind of reminds you of the movie “Chinatown,” the masterpiece of crime, in which it takes you a while to connect the dots on LA’s sprawling map of crooked intentions.

But essentially, City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office hired attorney Paul Paradis to represent the city in a lawsuit that resulted from the DWP billing disaster, and Paradis somehow managed to represent both the city and the lead plaintiff who was suing the city.

That doesn’t sound entirely possible, but institutional LA opens its arms wide to manipulation and deception, doesn’t it?

Paradis reached out to an Ohio attorney who released about $ 10 million on the deal and, according to court records, returned nearly $ 2.2 million of it to Paradis. In addition to his appearance for the city attorney, Paradis managed to land a $ 30 million DWP contract.

He has agreed to plead guilty of bribery and is cooperating with the federal prosecutor, which does not bode well for anyone who is even marginally involved in this case. In particular, former DWP managing director David Wright appears to be the unnamed person in court documents queuing for a $ 1 million salary and a Mercedes SL 550 to work for a Paradis company.

Wright, appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, was thrown on his ear following an FBI raid on DWP and prosecutors in 2019. An unnamed DWP board member is also accused in court documents of accepting bribes. A lawyer representing former board member Bill Funderburk has denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“I am more than outraged that anyone would violate their duties to the public we serve, as reflected in this settlement agreement,” said Feuer, whose candidacy for mayor has just hit a dent that may have knocked him out of the trailer. “As civil servants, integrity must be our motto, our guiding principle.”

Well put, but what about situations like that? If fire knew what was going on, that is bad. If he didn’t know, it was worse.

“I think he’s probably toast,” said longtime town hall watchdog Jack Humphreville of Fire’s chances of winning the mayor. “He can say whatever he wants, but it was on his watch, it’s that simple.”

Humphreville pointed out that oversight of the DWP rests largely with Garcetti, who appoints the board members.

“This is another black mark in the Garcetti administration,” said Humphreville.

Consumer Watchdog’s Jamie Court has followed this case from the start until his time filing complaints from DWP tariff payers about overbills. If all of the latest allegations are true, Court said, “the bribery of the DWP boss and the ease with which a few corrupt men took LA again makes it seem like we never left Chinatown.”

The court said the city council, the mayor, the DWP board of directors and the feepayers attorney all failed to protect the feepayers’ interests.

“They ignored the warning signs every step of the way,” said Court, who urged the next mayor, whoever it is, to keep an eye out for the fee payers. “We recommend a Citizen Utility Board, which is available in Chicago and other places, as a counter-power to the DWP.”

Do i have to say more? In the fight against corruption, we follow Chicago.

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