In what pretty much sums up the state of the economy over the last few years, executives at the The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) spent a good chunk of taxpayer change on lush lunches at some of the best, and not-so-best, restaurants in town before heading back to the office to, you know, administer low-income and Section 8 housing for qualified residents. Which our tax dollars are intended to pay for. If you've waited this long to be mad as hell and decide you're not going to take it anymore, now would be a good time to open a window.
In an investigation into the public agency's spending habits, KCET's “SoCal Connected” sifted through thousands of HACLA documents and found that executives submitted, and received reimbursements for, tens of thousands of dollars worth pretty damn fine meals all over the city. The program posted 964 of the more interesting, and most questionable, restaurant finds in a nifty interactive database on its website. Among the most interesting receipts: a $2,691.88 power lunch at Fleming's at L.A. Live last December.
Fleming's was the most expensive expensed meal; the second most expensive was a $2,233.44 lunch at Harold and Belle's. In fact, between 2008 and 2011, the agency's crew went to the Creole restaurant 33 times, spending a total of $14,000. HACLA's Director of Human Resources Patrice McConnell alone was responsible for almost half of the total spent at the Creole restaurant.
“Just curious, is there something about that restaurant that gets government work done faster than doing it in your office?” correspondent Laurel Erickson asks McConnell at a HACLA meeting. Fried catfish and gumbo, maybe? McConnell takes the Fifth and refuses to comment.
Many of receipts have handwritten notes explaining the reason for the expense. The occasion for the above $2,233.44 lunch, for example, was a “resident service staff meeting.” A “Sr. Staff Meeting” was conveniently held at Drago Centro; the total bill was $428.40. Sometimes, though, the stories didn't quite line up: “SoCal Connected” found one $2,200 meal at Drago that either was a “senior staff meeting,” a “public relations” event, or a “holiday luncheon,” depending on whose receipt you looked at.
A look through the database of restaurant expenditures reveals even more fascinating tidbits into the lifestyle of a HACLA executive. Bottega Louie was a popular choice, with one particularly expensive $700 outing of salads, pizzas, roasted beets, and New York strips for 17 people on July 31, 2009. The HACLA crew, in fact, seemed to have a penchant for steakhouses, receiving reimbursements for nice lunches and dinners at Ruth's Chris Steak House, Cut, and Pacific Dining Car.
Employees also frequented Plum Tree Inn, though they ordered disappointingly mundane dishes like Sweet and Sour Pork and Sesame Shrimp. And lest you think HACLA only charged the expensive stuff, rest assured that minor purchases were charged as well. One employee requested reimbursement for a $5.00 purchase at The Alcove, for example, and another charged an In-N-Out meal.
The high and low restaurant extravagances was just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to food, HACLA employees used their government charge card to buy red flag-raising things like stuffed pink elephants (two for $500).
“SoCal Connected” notes that many of the purchases may very well been justified, but leaves it up to the public to determine the legitimate from the abusive. It's also worth nothing that many of the most egregious instances occurred when former HACLA Chief Rudy Montiel was in charge of the agency; he left last spring with a $1.2 million payout.
Ken Simmons, who was the second in command at HACLA during Montiel's tenure and approved many of the expenses, is now the agency's interim CEO. Simmons, however, refuses to take any of the blame, arguing that the employees were simply good soldiers following orders, and the public shouldn't blame them for (ab)using the carte blanche with which they were entrusted: “That was the decision of the past administration. … It's unfair to blame any staff member for following the direction of management.”