County to hire investigators to study contracting policies

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors has voted to hire outside counsel to conduct a potentially wide-ranging investigation of the county contracting processes, prompted by a federal indictment of former Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger co-authored a motion calling for an investigation into the contracts relevant to the indictment, including a review of existing county policies and processes by a forensic auditor.

The motion is about restoring trust,” Solis said. “Transparency and accountability are values that should never be compromised.”

Supervisor Holly Mitchell offered a “friendly amendment” to the motion, expanding the review to cover contracting across all five county districts.

I think this motion doesn’t go far enough,” Mitchell told her colleagues. “I think we have a bigger issue that should be investigated and addressed.”

While the indictment focuses on alleged wrongdoing by Ridley-Thomas, who is now a member of the Los Angeles City Council, Mitchell pointed out that a full vote of the board would have been required to approve any funding.

She said she wanted to make sure the original motion didn’t “cast an unfair shadow on the 2nd District,” which she represents.

Mitchell’s amendment, which was also unanimously approved, laid out some parameters for the forensic auditor, calling for a review of “all service contracts with a cumulative value above $5 million approved by this board between the years 2015-2020.”

While that could include several thousand contracts and an extensive review, according to a board officer, Mitchell said her intent was that the law firm would be free to use professional discretion.

What she was aiming for, Mitchell said, was “some deep introspection about our service contracting and processes.”

Barger stressed that she was open to a broader review.

This is not about one district versus another,” Barger said. “I would open up every file I have … if need be.”

The indictment accuses Ridley-Thomas of conspiring with a USC dean to ensure enrollment and a teaching position for his son, in exchange for his support of lucrative county contracts with the university. Both Ridley-Thomas and the former dean have denied wrongdoing.

None of the board members ever uttered Ridley-Thomas’ name in their motions or during public discussion. None offered a defense of his decades of public service.

Supervisor Janice Hahn did say that the audit was not a rush to judgment.

Our former colleague deserves his day in court,” Hahn said.

Mitchell said she wanted to “share my own disappointment and concern with regard to the allegations. I’m deeply troubled that the public’s trust in this county and its board may have been damaged, irregardless of whether the allegations turn out to be true or not.”

Barger said she believed the board had a fiduciary duty to voters and taxpayers to act swiftly.

I believe wholeheartedly this is the right thing to do,” Barger said. “It’s not condemning any individual.”

She told her colleagues that she believed the audit would shed light on what the board may need to do better or affirm controls already in place.

“For us not to act would be irresponsible,” Barger added.

Both the motion and the amendment stated there was no intent to obstruct or interfere with the federal investigation, but Supervisor Sheila Kuehl worried that the audit itself could amount to interference.

County counsel reassured the board that the county could conduct its own parallel investigation, though it might require some coordination with the federal government.

Kuehl also raised the issue of privilege, noting that working papers and other information unearthed during the county’s audit results might ultimately be requested by federal investigators.

One longtime critic of the board, Eric Preven, told the board he was not personally shocked by the allegations given how closely he monitors the county’s business.

Preven, who has run unsuccessfully for a seat on the board, alleged that federal investigators were “able to see the kind of quid pro quid that takes place all the time, which is why it’s so unfair in a way” that Ridley-Thomas alone stood accused.

There are items on your agenda even today that reflect this kind of legacy of self-dealing,” Preven said.

The motion emphasized the board’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

The prevention of corruption and the protection of taxpayer dollars is absolutely necessary to preserve public confidence in the democratic process and ensure that government works for its constituents,” the motion read in part. “It is a fundamental principle that a public office cannot be used for personal enrichment.

The allegations in the recent federal indictment of a former Los Angeles County supervisor undermine the county’s standards of excellence and harm citizens’ confidence in the public officials who represent them,” the motion continued. “Over the years, we have sought to prevent corruption by controlling opportunity, incentive, and risk through robust processes and policies that provided transparency and accountability.

We must act now to rebuild integrity and trust — the principles central and uncompromisable to public service,” the motion concluded.

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