By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Custodial supervisors and storekeepers say that for years, based on both the contract and a directive from Business Support Services Manager Gary Wong, they had the flexibility to obtain products other than Empire’s that met their needs, as long as they compared prices. After the mega-contract was awarded, the DWP even asked Empire at one point to subcontract with a company called Zep Manufacturing because of complaints about the quality of Empire’s supplies. “We do what the city asks us to do,” Cronyn says. “We work for them.”
A recent memo from Arnie Netka to supply manager Lou Feldmeier clamped down on custodial supervisors’ ability to use discretion to buy non-Empire products. “In light of the current political atmosphere, and the number of audits by the Controller’s Office looking into the expenditure of the taxpayer’s money, it is critical that we all do our part to insure adherence to both legal requirements and operating rules, regulations and procedures,” Netka wrote. His memo led to other directives. On June 24, Alfred Sosa, superintendent of construction and maintenance, instructed all custodial supervisors that they must purchase supplies only from the Empire contract and the “Empire Cleaning Supply Catalogue, available under Line 36.” In August, Albert Stephens, supply-chain manager, announced disciplinary measures against custodial supervisors who had used credit cards to obtain supplies elsewhere.
Discipline took a bizarre turn recently when five custodians received notice that they were going to be fired. Two
others were suspended. Accompanying the firing notices were copies of surveillance videos taken without the custodians’ knowledge — sometimes for up to a year. Harry Venable, a private investigator with Amko Investigations; Charles Kim, the owner of Amko; William Garcia, a chief special agent for the DWP; and DWP special agents William Jones, Arnold Esqueda and Richard Austin had been following them, according to DWP documents obtained by the Weekly. “Let me follow them around with a video camera for months without them knowing and see if I can catch them doing something wrong,” Miranda says sarcastically. (Gonzalo Cureton, director of security services, who reports to Thomas Hokinson, requested authority from Albert Stephens to hire the private dicks. Amko Investigations has earned close to $1 million working for the DWP on workers’-compensation claims since 1989. The custodial surveillance cost the DWP $56,000.)
Some of the targeted employees say they might be drawing attention for resisting forced attrition, and other union activities — in addition to their criticism of a dubious single-source contract. “They can follow me all they want downtown,” says one custodian, who looked out his window one day and saw agents in two SUVs watching his house. “But if you follow me home, that is straight Gestapo tactics, man.” Although department guidelines call for progressive discipline for those in violation of working rules, says a lawyer for two of the custodians caught on tape, “Instead of telling people, ‘Hey, we know you’ve been off the job,’ they launched this sting operation and went straight to discharge. It’s way over the top.”
Hokinson and Martinez deny specific knowledge of the DWP’s surveillance of its custodians. Yet a well-known small-business leader recalls telling Martinez what he thought of such tactics, and a witness for the DWP at a discharge hearing for one of the custodians testified that Hokinson gave the firing orders. Hokinson has sought to crush dissent in other ways, according to DWP employees who are angry about his mandate that they take personal leave to attend Board of Water and Power Commissioner meetings or City Council meetings. Perhaps the mood was summed up best recently by Rafael Valdez, a head groundskeeper at the DWP and veteran of three decades of service to the city. In an October 8 memo to Martinez, Hokinson and Sosa, Valdez wrote, “In my 30 years working for the city of Los Angeles, I have never found a need or a desire to attend either one of these meetings. I find it disturbing, indeed, to have this directive imposed upon my group. It seems designed to put up a roadblock to prevent my people from attending . . . I believe the time to attend has come.”
No obstacle will keep DWP workers from showing up at City Council meetings. “Look deep into our eyes,” Miranda told council members last week. “We are the American workers, the backbone of this country. We make up the city and the DWP. We also are taxpayers. And as individual city workers we did what was right. We bought from all vendors — minorities, small business and women-owned — not to monopolize and only buy from one. We treated all vendors fairly. We are here to tell our story of retaliation.”
By the time the procession of employees and small vendors had finished, they had consumed the public-comment period, plus an additional six minutes and 49 seconds. Council chair Alex Padilla had nervously shuffled the public-comment cards and tried gently to move the group along. Cardenas had stood up and promised he would be holding more meetings in his office and in committee. Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a candidate for mayor, had held his head in one hand as Miranda spoke, his eyes blinking rapidly, perhaps contemplating what he would do to clean up the DWP. Afterward, Councilman Tom LaBonge, a former DWP employee, vowed to take a closer look at the matter.