Revolt by Former Staff Makes a Mess for City Controller Kenneth Mejia

Cityside Column: Accusations of toxic behavior, apartment-referral fees and beer — or was it water? — pong dog the corgi-toting rookie politician

On April 9, City Controller Kenneth Mejia felt the first droplets in what became a political tsunami over the following week. On Monday, tweets by former staffers describing the progressive champ as a “toxic” boss started zipping around City Hall. Two days later, Julia Wick of the Los Angeles Times published a blockbuster story that went deeper, including accusations that the rookie officeholder had been pressuring employees to move into his building, a step that — ka-ching — nets him $1,000 in referral fees.

Jaws dropped, but the number of City Hall watchers surprised by the hubbub is zero (a theme we’ll return to later). I spoke to numerous people who follow this stuff, and the general expectation was that after Mejia’s firebrand campaign, there would be some sort of blow-up in the office sooner rather than later. The shock is that it was  not the controller’s veteran office staff revolting, but rather that the left-leaning crew that propelled him to victory had begun eating each other. 

The reports are squirm-inducing, including that, while running for office, Mejia allegedly questioned a pair of young campaign staffers—Shekinah Deocares and Sim Bilal—about their sex life and was accused of making groaning noises and then ignored pleas to hush. Deocares, who briefly served as the controller’s director of community engagement, continued the social media onslaught Wednesday, tweeting, “Instead of accepting accountability or reaching out to understand the situation, they double down.” Then, referencing Mejia’s former campaign manager and current Chief of Staff Jane Nguyen, Deocares adds, “You were there when he would make sexual comments Jane. You even told him to stop though he didn’t.”

You live by the tweet, you die by the tweet.

Nguyen and other Mejia staffers have denied or downplayed the reports, asserting they come from frustrated ex-employees, and that upper-level staff was unaware of the accusations before they were aired publicly. Per the referral fee for each apartment rented, they say no one was coerced to live near the boss. It is worth noting that Mejia himself is keeping mum, and when he takes to Twitter it’s in nothing-to-see-here-folks mode — instead, he references upcoming audits and open positions in the office.

The accusations puncture the veneer of someone who backers hoped would be a ray of light in City Hall. But to others, the alleged behavior is entirely on brand. After all, during the campaign a string of unsavory Mejia tweets from recent years surfaced, including one calling Joe Biden a “rapist & racist,” and there were photos of him holding aloft a sign depicting Hillary Clinton behind prison bars. In June, LAMag’s Jason McGahan reported that although Mejia, a former Green Party member, built his campaign around the pitch of being “the only CPA in the race,” his license had been inactive or expired five times since 2016.

Still, the Los Angeles Times editorial page endorsed him twice and he crushed Councilman Paul Koretz in the November runoff. The number of people who thought Koretz would be a great financial watchdog was zero, but there was also about a zero percent chance of him causing this kind of conflagration. 

Audits, TikTok videos, corgis

Controller is a curious position. It is one of just three citywide elected posts, but City Hall insiders know it provides limited power, and the joke is that the controller actually controls almost nothing. Audits can generate media attention, but they are a small part of the office’s duties and don’t necessarily affect meaningful change.

Mejia has yet to really put his stamp on the office. The most notable output in his first four months has been a string of self-promoting TikTok videos and other social media posts built around his visage and his corgis; the last local elected official I saw display this much ego was a (pre-scandal) José Huizar, who put his name and picture on everything.

Still, there have been no audits or financial reports that rip at the seams of city business. This is probably in part timing and in part a tactical move, because L.A. is in budget season. Although the mayor does the first pass at setting city spending, the City Council holds significant sway and could trim Mejia’s purse strings if desired. This is conceivable—every council member recalls Mejia trolling Koretz by appearing in council chambers before the election and holding up a sign reading “91 days.” The smart choice may be to keep a lowish profile, at least until year one money is secured.

In every regard, the employee blow-up is bad news. Mejia, like many new pols, is learning that running for office is completely different than doing the job, and while having ideologically aligned people on the campaign is nice, it doesn’t mean those individuals will fit in the government structure. Indeed, a point of contention sparking the tweetstorm by the former staffers was the firing of young programmer Kyler Chin, who had a high-level post. The Times report detailed disputes over Chin’s schedule—he seemed to prefer not working 9-to-5.

That flexibility may be feasible in the tech world, but City Hall is not Silicon Beach, and it’s incumbent on every elected official to make sure their senior staff understands the hours and expectations the gig involves. For all the attention-generating billboards Mejia put up during the campaign, the job starts with being able to manage and win over the 160 employees in the office.

“Water pong,” anyone?

Then there’s the absolutely hilarious party the Times wrote about, hosted by Chin’s roommate and Mejia. The story detailed Chin being displeased that a game of beer pong was being played in his living room. Mejia staffers instead said the game was in a common area, and, Wick writes, Chin’s roommate, “clarified that the members of the controller’s executive team had been playing ‘water pong,’ not beer pong.”

If I had been drinking beer, or water, when reading that, it would have come out of my nose because I’m pretty sure that the number of people who have ever played water pong is zero. The better move is to own it—admit Team Mejia had a frat-like game of trying to knock a little white ball into a red solo cup of Bud Light. Saying “No! It was water pong,” may not be the kind of denial like then-President Bill Clinton claiming, “I didn’t inhale,” but it strains credulity.

Beer pong silliness aside, there is a serious aspect: The accusations spark the need for clarity and the kind of transparency that Mejia and others spent the last election cycle demanding. Anything that happened during the campaign is probably out of the city’s bailiwick but questions of whether an elected official tried to pressure his underlings to move into his building, and benefited financially from it — even if a small amount — must be made clear to the public. The question is, who might investigate this? Probably not the controller’s office. Perhaps the city Personnel Department? The Ethics Commission?

In short, the public deserves to know what went down and if an investigation finds the new controller did no wrong, that’s to his benefit.

Another curious tack is that Mejia has shown a willingness to freeze out certain media entities, except for some favorites. For instance, when the Times wrote about his office seeking to monitor the LAPD, Mejia did not speak to reporters and instead made an appearance on Twitch. Maybe he thought that, since he won the election, he can go directly to followers. If so, that’s misguided—many Angelenos still get their information from legacy media, and Mejia works for the people, not just his supporters.

None of this dooms Mejia’s career. Plenty of politicians have stumbled early, then learned how to do the job. And L.A. benefits with adept financial acumen. But part of succeeding and gaining public trust is providing honesty and answers, and acknowledging a screw-up. Let’s how the controller handles this mess.

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