By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was so unpopular, it hired the public-relations firm of Fleishman-Hillard to improve its image. Trying to figure out why is sort of like a metaphysical brainteaser. It was unpopular because it raised water rates while at the same time arrogantly frittering away the money it got from customers on things like a $100,000 bash to celebrate the reopening of Los Angeles City Hall and $75,000 to sponsor the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. And blowing more than $20 million, over six years, to Fleishman-Hillard, to improve its image.
But the DWP is owned by its customers, the people of Los Angeles, who by law cannot buy electricity from Edison or water from some little agency but have to buy from their own city department. The people also own City Hall and a chunk of the Coliseum, so why would the DWP need to use the money it gets from its ratepayers to help celebrate City Hall and sponsor the Coliseum? Should the DWP be using public money to sponsor public programs, as a private company might? And if the department’s image is bad in part because it spends so much on public relations, then why would it . . . See? It’s a puzzle.
The predicament reached a new stage last week when Fleishman, based in St. Louis, was accused of faking bills to the DWP. The firm had won a renewable $3 million annual contract to help the city’s monolithic Water and Power agency sell itself, but that figure was just a ceiling. If its monthly time sheets added up to less, it would be paid less, so — according to ex–Fleishman employees who spoke to the Los Angeles Times— the firm made up stuff to make sure it pulled in the maximum amount.
Even the things it didn’t make up looked fishy, like the hours upon hours one Fleishman employee apparently spent just clipping newspaper articles.
City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo claimed he had been on to Fleishman all along, but just didn’t have enough to move with until Times reporters Ralph Frammolino and Ted Rohrlich got an ex–Fleishman worker to cop to the time-sheet padding. Now that Delgadillo had a name, he could file suit, and he did, with alacrity, and he called a news conference to make sure everyone knew about it. It’s worth noting, though, that the lawyers the city attorney assigned to the case — Richard Helgesen and Susan Lopez-Giss — are both embedded at the DWP. They are suing the contractor who allegedly ripped off their client, but they can’t be expected to come down equally hard on the client itself, which arguably helped rip off the ratepayers by failing to adequately scrutinize the contract, the monthly invoices, and the work they were getting from Fleishman-Hillard.
Mayor Jim Hahn appeared alongside Delgadillo, along with Controller Laura Chick and Councilman Tony Cardenas, and declared, “We need to get to the bottom of how the DWP was overbilled.” He would meet, he said, with DWP board President Dominick Rubalcava to talk about what happened. But that was less than reassuring, since Hahn appointed Rubalcava, along with the other four board members, and Rubalcava was a major Hahn campaign donor. Hahn has had very close ties with Fleishman, hiring his chief media spokeswoman, Shannon Murphy, from the firm, and sending his chief of staff, Matt Middlebrook, to the same firm when he wanted to leave the Mayor’s Office.
That doesn’t mean Hahn did anything wrong in seeking out the (reputedly) very best people in the PR field to help him run Los Angeles. But it doesn’t look good.
A few blocks from the Delgadillo news conference, Hahn’s once-and-probably-future campaign opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, held forth outside the DWP building with Councilman Jack Weiss and demanded that the department’s recent rate increase be suspended until he saw some major reforms in the way the DWP did business.
“Ultimately it is the mayor’s responsibility to address these problems,” Villaraigosa said, but the council, “in the absence of leadership,” must step in. His message was clear. Whatever Fleishman did, whatever the DWP did, the responsibility lies with the man who beat him for mayor three years ago. It’s still too early to determine whether ratepayers and voters will hold Hahn responsible for this scandal, but again, it doesn’t look good.
The Fleishman-Hillard DWP contracts go back to 1998, but much of this story starts in 2001, when Hahn and Villaraigosa were battling in their high-spending mayoral runoff. When Hahn won, he almost immediately had to campaign again, this time to block San Fernando Valley secession. Over the next year, persistent rumors began circulating around City Hall and out at the harbor and the airport that only companies that raised or donated money to Hahn’s campaign and the anti-secession movement would be considered for lucrative city contracts. If you wanted to play, you had to pay. Fleishman-Hillard paid, and whether or not that was the reason, its hefty DWP contracts were renewed.
Talk of pay-to-play had been rampant at City Hall for years. The allegations were always hard to prove, but things were a little different this time. A new charter allowed the city controller to conduct management audits of departments, and Laura Chick started poking around. District Attorney Steve Cooley promised to crack down on governmental corruption, if he could find any, and his people also started nosing about.