Deadbeat Duds 

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999

Remember L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s claims that he’d cleared up problems in his beleaguered child-support unit? Well, not according to Venice camera assistant Kevin Gray, 28, who reports that he recently emerged from a Kafkaesque world of red tape and voice-mail hell after Garcetti’s minions mistakenly slapped him with a deadbeat-dad lawsuit.

The Bureau of Family Support Operations, you’ll remember, was eviscerated in a withering L.A. Times series that documented more than 350 lawsuits a month against men misidentified as deadbeats by the section’s controversial computer system. Using fragmented information from the custodial parent, the system searches electronic databases for a match. That person is then sued without further investigation. Gray, who is childless, was sued solely because of a false name match.

Garcetti told the county Board of Supervisors last November that he had assigned 12 permanent caseworkers to a special Mistaken Identity Division (MID) to clean up the mess. But no mention of the division, let alone contact information, appeared on Gray’s lawsuit summons. Gray repeatedly called the two telephone numbers listed (the D.A.’s Office 800 line and the Superior Court info line) and got nothing but busy signals and voice mail. Mindful that failure to answer the lawsuit promptly ( and pay a $189 filing fee) would trigger a default ruling of legal paternity, Gray got a lawyer.

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"It took me about 20 calls, including one to Garcetti’s personal secretary, just to find out who was processing Kevin’s case," recalled attorney Jeff Katofsky. When asked why it took a lawyer two weeks of phone time to even learn of the MID’s existence, a spokesman at the D.A.’s Office suggested that "he [Katofsky] may not have been a family-law specialist."

He wasn’t. Neither, OffBeat suspects, are the bulk of the defendants ensnared by these lawsuits. In the end, Gray spent three months and almost $300 to shake a totally groundless case. Based on Garcetti’s own mistaken-identity stats, that’s potentially $105,000 a month shelled out by hapless citizens because of the D.A.’s Band-Aid reforms. The D.A.’s boilerplate response: "We’re aware of the problems and are taking steps to rectify them."

—Jennifer Smith

School Daze

It read like a primer on vigilant government at work: Two outside painting contractors and two school-district supervisors faced bribery and embezzlement charges after district officials courageously called in law enforcement to investigate. That’s about as far as last week’s story in the Times went. But after a chat with the school district’s former top auditor, OffBeat has to wonder whether the school system is more preoccupied with good government or good press.

Former auditor Wajeeh Ersheid, who left the district late last year, says he first got wind of problems with painting contracts in early 1998 when senior district officials and legal counsel asked him to gather records. When he pressed for information — he was, after all, the chief internal auditor — he was told simply that investigators were looking into possible wage violations by contractors, a problem outside his bailiwick.

In March, the school district’s entire setup for awarding contracts under $15,000 was challenged by newspapers, trade unions and the school-bond oversight committee. But not by the school district itself, judging by press accounts. The district first defended its practices, then changed them under relentless outside pressure. Never did the school system permit its own auditors to determine if there really was a problem, says Ersheid. In fact, "the district was keeping information away from its auditors," he says. He concludes that the only explanation for this inaction is that officials did not want to know — and, most of all, didn’t want anything embarrassing to come out. Audits, you see, are public records.

District general counsel Richard K. Mason conceded that contractors and lower-level employees — not senior officials — deserve most credit for alerting the D.A. But he insists that the school district cooperated fully and that it would have been inappropriate to conduct a parallel investigation.

Mason says he has no information regarding another prediction by Ersheid — that the entire bidding scandal has yet to emerge. Ersheid says that similar problems with roofing contracts triggered a number of recent retirements and forced transfers.



Compassion Caper

Sifting through last week’s mail, OffBeat was thrilled to find a copy of our favorite publication, the Los Angeles Police Protective League journal, The Thin Blue Line. Tucked among the usual diatribes against Chief "Burnie" Parks’ unforgivable attention to civilian complaints and full-page ads for Ford dealers in Santa Clarita, we found an item that, like the occasional examples of cop poetry found in the same pages (yes, they rhyme!), opens a window on the souls that animate the men and women assigned to serve and protect.

The story concerns an October car chase triggered by an early-morning double homicide in Eagle Rock. The "estranged husband" suspected in the shooting deaths of a woman and her "male friend" was spotted not far from West L.A. (The LAPD press office could not provide the names of those involved.) A one-and-a-half-hour car chase across 10 freeways ensued — unbelievably, without attracting TV cameras — and ended "when the suspect pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head." Chief Bernard Parks and Deputy Chief Rick Dinse stopped by "and commended the officers for a job well done." The Thin Blue Line goes on to list the 10 officers praised for their roles in the chase. The author of the story — who told OffBeat she didn’t mean to make light of the tragedy and that "if it came off sounding [cheery] it wasn’t meant to" — concludes the whole bloody affair, "Now that’s what I call a Commendable Cop Caper!"

—Ben Ehrenreich

Hemp Madness

Readers of Gary Webb’s "Dark Alliance" series on the contra-crack connection in South-Central Los Angeles might be wondering whatever happened to a key figure in the story, convicted drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon. Well, we found him — smack in the middle of another drug scandal involving Nicaragua.

Webb documented how Blandon and others supplied tons of cocaine to L.A. crack distributor "Freeway" Ricky Ross in the early ’80s. Part of the proceeds went to finance the contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Webb suggested that the CIA knew of the coke-trafficking operation but turned a blind eye.

Blandon, under a deal with the feds, played informant in 1994 to help the DEA nab Ross and put him behind bars. Fast-forward to December 23. That’s when the Nicaraguan police busted what they described as the largest marijuana-growing operation in the history of Central America. The point person and 10 percent shareholder in the Canadian company, Hemp Agro International, which was charged with cultivating 400 million pounds of marijuana, was — you guessed it — none other than Blandon. He secured permits from the Nicaraguan Agriculture Department to import and farm what the combine described as hemp. The Nicara-guan government launched an investigation, and early this month heads of minor officials rolled.

Hemp Agro claims that its crop was hemp, the non-narcotic variant of marijuana. The Toronto Sun newspaper reported that the Hemp Agro crop’s level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, was above that of commercial hemp but below that of pot sold on the street. No matter, the DEA, which is suspected of having had a hand in the busts, considers both substances illegal. Blandon, who was conveniently out of the country for the arrests, denied any wrongdoing or association with the DEA in an interview from his Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home. (The interview was with the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial, www.confidencial.com.ni.) Now, where have we heard Blandon baying his innocence before? Oh yes, when he denied CIA or DEA knowledge of his contra support, or its link to the crack epidemic.

—Queena Sook Kim

Puff Pastry

We were startled last Sunday to find no mention in James Bates’ L.A. Times magazine article on Rupert Murdoch of the media mogul’s notorious penchant for jettisoning the First Amendment in the service of his global empire. Where was the discussion of Murdoch’s decision last year to kill former Hong Kong Governor-General Christopher Patten’s book on China on the bogus grounds that it was boring — and the real grounds that it contained a discussion of the Chinese regime that included its "negative aspects"? Nary a word, either, on Murdoch’s 1994 decision to throw the BBC and its tough reporting out of the satellite programs he was hoping to beam to the billion-odd potential consumers of China — for fear, again, of offending the government. Even Newt Gingrich’s $4.5 million book contract with a Murdoch-owned publishing house failed to make the cut; Murdoch at the time was battling charges that he had violated Federal Communications Commission rules against foreign ownership of U.S. TV stations. (The Australian titan later became an American citizen.) Instead, Bates accused the media of stereotyping Murdoch, dismissed his very real war with co-titan Ted Turner, and treated us to a touching real-guy tableau of Murdoch eating a hot dog and peanuts at his soon-to-be-gold-plated Dodger Stadium. For that matter, what’s with this Hail Mary bid by Murdoch to grab the new L.A. NFL team for Chavez Ravine’s empty acres: just a rumor, or a potential deal? You’d never know from reading Bates’ profile, which seemed modeled after the kind of story that the Murdoch press does on right-wing pols: a puff-piece.

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