New Year, New 523 Complaints of Fraud, Waste and Abuse in City of L.A.

Cityside Column: Annual City Controller report digs into allegations of financial shenanigans

Spring brings many things to Los Angeles. This is when we embrace the return of nights at Dodger Stadium and lament the lack of rain during the winter. The season means beach days and visits to the Huntington Gardens.

For City Hall nerds, there are other highlights, including the annual State of the City address and the unveiling of the new municipal budget. There is also one of my favorite if largely overlooked traditions: the City Controller’s report on local fraud, waste and abuse.

The latest iteration of Controller Ron Galperin’s exploration of financial shenanigans, dubbed “On the Lookout,” was released Wednesday. It sheds light on a variety of questionable acts that involve taxpayer money and city workers. They range from the head-scratching to did-they-really-think-they’d-get-away-with-it? fireable offenses.

It’s a short report, just 10 pages including a cover letter, but is packed with intriguing details. It notes that the Controller’s Fraud, Waste and Abuse Unit (yes, there’s an actual unit) fielded 523 complaints in 2021, a 14 percent jump from the prior year, and the second-highest total since 2011. Some 68 percent of the allegations were made anonymously, and 55 percent filtered in through a web portal, with 39 percent reported by phone.

The unit digs into allegations involving city resources, rather than personal property (those are the purview of the LAPD). Once a report is made, staffers do an initial review; this can propel a full FWA investigation, or it can be referred to another city department or law enforcement. Many times there is not enough detail or evidence to move forward; a majority of last year’s complaints were deemed outside the unit’s scope or otherwise closed.

The results of the sleuthing are not as detailed as one might hope. Galperin’s office notes, “The individuals involved and, in some cases, departments are not identified in order to preserve privacy.” Still, intriguing nuggets are revealed. The FWA unit in 2021 classified 194 cases as actionable, with 49 involving the Los Angeles Police Department, and 38 connected to the Department of Water and Power. (Galperin is currently running for state Controller.)

The FWA team itself investigated 38 cases; of those, 16 involved allegations of violation or abuse of city policy. Another six instances concerned suspicion of payroll fraud, and two were built on suspected theft of city resources. Ultimately, 14 investigations were substantiated.

If there is a silver lining, it is that, based on the findings, Los Angeles is not a vast thieves’ den where people are snaking something any time they think they can get away with it. Additionally, the report details how an enhanced fraud awareness training was deployed to all city departments in early 2021, so most municipal workers should know, in theory at least, when something hinky is going on, and have a path to report it.

The highlight of “On the Lookout” is the case outcomes, which reveal some of those who got caught. Although the fraud and abuse elements are the juiciest, the waste aspects can be astounding. They includes the revelation that the city Department of Transportation spent more than $384,000 to buy a dozen electric vehicles, then left them sitting idle in a yard for two years because no one acquired the needed charging infrastructure. Sure, we all sometimes forget to put batteries in that earthquake-kit flashlight, but this marks next-level incompetence. The FWA report says that, “As a result of the investigation, the vehicles were put into service.” It doesn’t mention if a chucklehead was punished for not figuring out how to plug in the cars.

The most audacious case last year involved a Recreation and Parks department employee with a shifty entrepreneurial streak. The recreation assistant, who was not identified, hatched a scheme to run a private baseball league on city-owned fields on weekends. The person collected fees and even brought in portable toilets for games. How much cash was taken in was not revealed, but the person was ultimately fired.

That wasn’t the only time someone clearly crossed the lines of propriety. The report mentions how a batch of employees at an unspecified department were found to be falsifying timecards; they got paid $50,000 for work that had not been done. Unspecified “disciplinary action” was meted out.

On certain occasions more money may have been spent on the investigation than in the boundary-crossing itself. That was the case when a hotline caller tattled on a city employee who had plugged their electric car into a standard wall outlet in a city parking garage. Not only was this deemed a safety issue, as the outlet was not meant for vehicle charging, but the city classified it as “using city electricity.” An administrative warning was dispensed.

Other times, there was more weirdness than financial gain. The FWA unit investigated allegations that an Airport department worker was photographing planes for a social media account while on duty. Apparently this is a no-no, and though it was determined that the person did not make any money, according to the report, “The employee was counseled that these activities should be conducted during non-work hours.”

I have no idea what social media account is paying for plane photos. Maybe this will be revealed in the 2023 “On the Lookout.”

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