In the last month, the Los Angeles Times has produced no less than six stories about taxpayer-funded security upgrades to the home of L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
The five county supervisors, who represent more constituents than some United States senators, run county government, including the Sheriff's Department, probation, child and family services, animal control and more. They're fair game for a newspaper looking to hold public officials accountable, no doubt.
But the Times seems absolutely obsessed with what amounts to $6,278.61 of your money spent on a security system for Ridley-Thomas' converted garage-office - even though such security work is allowed under county policy, and even though the reporter who first pursued the story, CBS L.A.'s David Goldstein, essentially passed on it:
County policy entitles the supes to taxpayer-funded security. That includes Sheriff's deputies who escort them to public events, and security systems installed at their homes. The south county's Ridley-Thomas and east county supervisor Gloria Molina represent the most crime-challenged districts in greater L.A., and the law requires the two officials to live in the communities from which they were elected.
The $6,278.61 spent on Ridley-Thomas' home is less than what the Times acknowledges was spent on similar security upgrades to the home of fellow supervisor Molina - $7,406.72 worth.
But so far the paper has made only glancing references to Molina's taxpayer-funded improvements.
The paper requested and received a document listing the cost of Molina's residential security upgrades. However, unlike the documents and information it received about Ridley-Thomas' upgrades, the details regarding what, exactly, was done to Molina's home were redacted. And no stories have made that work their focus.
We reached out to Molina's office but did not hear back.
Interestingly, the Times originally reported on Jan. 15, in the first of six stories, including one on the front page, that Ridley-Thomas' home-garage improvements billed to the taxpayer cost "about $10,000" and included "drywall, an air conditioner, appliances and a security system."
Follow-up coverage included two versions of a double-byline story Jan. 16 about how the city was looking into whether Ridley-Thomas' garage had been converted into an office without proper permits.
In the paper's latest coverage, published yesterday, the Times now reports the District Attorney's office is "looking into whether thousands of dollars in taxpayer money was misspent" on the garage improvements.
But the biggest scoop in this latest piece isn't in the headline. In fact, it's what is missing from the story that's most interesting: The $10,000 figure. [See correction/update at the bottom of the story.]
In fact, as the Times often does, it appeared to backtrack on previous reporting to include a key bit of math.
As the paper now acknowledges, two weeks after the Ridley-Thomas work was completed by county crews in early October, the supervisor reimbursed taxpayers for the personal, non-security side (that air conditioner, those appliances) of the upgrades. The county sent him a bill for $3,759.39, and he paid it.
Suddenly a $10,000, taxpayer-funded improvement to his Leimert Park house becomes a $6,278.61 security job. Is it still a story?
After running with information from an anonymous tipster and unnamed sources in its first story, documents and subsequent facts appear to counter the Times' original impression that at least some of the taxpayer-covered improvements might have been of a personal nature.
As one of the most hard-hitting pieces in the paper's series on Garage-gate says:
Supervisors, who make an annual salary of $181,292, are entitled to home security systems provided by the county, but not to unrelated improvements to their property at government expense.
As the coverage has continued, the paper focused on electrical wiring, walls being torn out, a trench being dug, city permits (or lack thereof) and now, as trumpeted in yesterday's headline, a DA's "probe."
Of course, the District Attorney's office will "probe" almost anything if it receives a complaint. It got such a complaint in this case right around the time of the first Times story. DA's spokeswoman Jane Robison told us, "We've received a complaint, and we're reviewing it." Is this fairly routine, we asked, that you have to look into any complaint? "Correct," she said.
Ridley-Thomas' office this week released information regarding the garage. A fact sheet suggests the conversion, including the addition of a bathroom, was done before he purchased the home in 1992. It says that a "professional inspection" conducted at the time of purchase turned up no issue with the '80s-era, domesticated state of the garage.
So is the Times now hammering Ridley-Thomas over a 3-decade-old garage conversion?
A spokeswoman for the paper told us, "Our response is that the L.A. Times stories speak for themselves."
Ridley-Thomas' office stated that he allowed the security improvements at the recommendation of county security folks and that this kind of work is not unusual. In the last five years, his office states, ...
... $75,000 was spent on home security for all supervisors - an average of $15,000 per year.
We asked all four of the other supervisors how much taxpayer money has been spent on their own home security in the last five years.
Don Knabe's spokeswoman told us, "Additional security work [was] done at Supervisor Knabe's home in the last five years, following the original work when he became supervisor." But she did not specify a dollar amount.
We know about Molina's improvements, though we asked anyway (and we didn't get an answer). Mike Antonovich's spokesman said zero has been spent on his home security during that time. Zev Yaroslavsky's spokesman said that the supervisor had his system installed during his first term, way back in the 1990s, and that only $64 in maintenance has been spent in the last five years.
That spokesman, by the way, said all supes have their homes inspected by the county for proper security measures once a year.
Ridley-Thomas had this to say to the Weekly about the Times' coverage:
They got a bad tip. And they could be taken more seriously if they had written anywhere near that number of stories about the opening of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, which is more relevant to my constituents and the needs of the safety net in the county of Los Angeles. Instead they chose to give license to unsubstantiated allegations masquerading as journalism. It's very offensive, to put it mildly.
He added, in a statement:
In 22 years, we have always obtained permits when required for work done to our home. This is a matter of public record and shows my diligence in such matters.
CBS Los Angeles was the first outlet to inquire about Ridley-Thomas' garage improvements, by the way. The station, known for its splashy investigative reports, including one about city workers drinking and attending strip clubs on the job, passed on this one.
Investigative reporter David Goldstein told us that CBS L.A., acting on a tip ("I'm assuming we got the same tip as the Times," he said), asked for the garage documents in early December. The tip was that Ridley-Thomas allegedly got a TV and air conditioner for his house on the taxpayers' dime, he said.
Even though the original documents didn't explain that those items were covered by the supervisor's personal wallet - and, as it turns out, they were - Goldstein said the amount, $10,000 or so, was small enough that CBS L.A. decided to pass on doing a story.
"We were looking at $10,000 worth of security improvements at a supervisor's house, and it didn't seem to be excessive," he told us.
We asked Marc Cooper, an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and director of Annenberg Digital News, what he thought of the paper's obsession with Ridley-Thomas' garage:
I don't want to say you can't have too much coverage of a supposed case of personal corruption. But clearly in the case of Mark Ridley-Thomas, independent of the facts, it's greatly disproportionate. If he stole $10,000, which he didn't, it wouldn't even register as a blip in terms of the money misspent by the agencies administered by these supervisors.
Indeed, the supervisors oversee a $23 billion or so annual budget.
And, in fall, while Mark-Ridley Thomas was getting $6,278.61 worth of home security at your expense, City of Los Angeles taxpayers were footing the bill for about $375,000 worth of improvements to Getty House, the official mayoral residence in Windsor Square, which is operated by a nonprofit group.
That's 59 times the dollar amount attributed to Ridley-Thomas' now-controversial garage alarm system.
The Weekly broke that story. To its credit, the Times followed up. It published one piece about it.
*[Correction and further response from the Times, added at 5:30 p.m.]: We originally reported that, in its most recent Feb. 11 piece on Garage-gate, the Times never mentioned its original $10,038 allegation, quietly backpedaling and using the $6,239 number instead. We were wrong about that, and we regret the error.
The top of the Feb. 11 piece broke down the cost of the project as "$6,239 to perform work during a project to install a security system that included replacing interior walls in Ridley-Thomas' converted garage and trenching the property for an electrical upgrade. ... The supervisor reimbursed the county $3,759" - - a far more accurate accounting than the $10,000 sum cited in its January reports.
Additionally, the paper sent us this statement:
The Times' reporting on the installation of a taxpayer-funded security system at the home of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has been precise and fair. Although Ridley-Thomas declined repeated requests for comment and information, the articles have reflected his side of the story as fully as possible, based on information from other county officials and Ridley-Thomas' own statements to other media. The Times has consistently reported that Ridley-Thomas reimbursed the county for part of the cost of the project. No factual error in our reporting has been brought to our attention. We continue to seek a complete accounting of taxpayer expenditures on the project and will report on the controversy as new information becomes available.
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For the record, we've never accused the Times of making outright errors, although we maintain that the daily's first report on Jan. 15 was neither precise nor completely accurate. It said "government employees performed" $10,000 worth of work to install "drywall, an air conditioner, appliances and a security system" and stated that "taxpayer money is not supposed to be spent on unrelated improvements."
As it turned out, and as the Times later acknowledged, the cost to taxpayers was $6,278.61, and the bills for that air conditioner and "appliances" were covered by the supervisor.
The paper has not, in fact, consistently reported that Ridley-Thomas reimbursed the people for that portion of the work. The original Jan. 15 story and a follow-up on Jan. 16 failed to do so. Perhaps that's one reason they keep harping on this story - it's taken quite a few tries to get it right.