Thursday, August 9, 2007

Toilets for the Working Class

The Housing Authority "has spent $2,500 on a toilet. This is frustrating and disturbing,"

"Is there really a lack of funds or are they just being spent on the wrong priorities?"

From the Los Angeles Times

City official calls for audit of Housing Authority

The agency places three employees on leave during an investigation of possible bid-rigging and the installation of overpriced bathroom fixtures.

By Jessica Garrison and Ted Rohrlich
Times Staff Writers

August 1, 2007

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn called for an audit of the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles, citing a Times report last week pointing to bid-rigging and installation of pricey toilets.

"I am constantly fighting to get more funding for services, like summer jobs and community center hours, for the residents of our housing developments. Now I read in the L.A. Times" that the authority "has spent $2,500 on a toilet. This is frustrating and disturbing," Hahn said.

Separately, City Controller Laura Chick announced that she already had planned to send auditors to the department to determine what parts of the agency need further scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the housing authority placed three employees on leave late Monday while their involvement in the scandal is investigated, sources said. The three were not identified.

The developments follow an article in The Times on Saturday about a housing authority manager who directed about $800,000 in contracts to his brothers and three politically connected firms without competitive bidding or after rigged contests.

The manager, Victor Taracena, was fired earlier this year after housing authority officials investigated his contracting practices. His case was referred to the Los Angeles County district attorney for possible prosecution.

Taracena's attorney, Marshall Rubin, has said that his client denies wrongdoing. Rubin on Tuesday declined to elaborate, saying he had not recently had a chance to speak with his client.

The newspaper also found that the authority overpaid for many items — about four times more than the county housing authority does to buy and install toilets and about 10 times what the county agency pays to buy and install grab bars. The overspending on those items alone cost the agency more than $130,000.

The installations were intended to make public housing more accessible to disabled people and the overspending could delay some projects.

Housing authority Executive Director Rudolf Montiel said he had spoken with Hahn and looked forward to working with her and the controller, Chick. But he defended the agency's financial controls.

Even the tightest controls, he said, won't "keep opportunistic employees from defrauding the agency. It happens here and it happens ... all the time in other city agencies."

Montiel came to the agency three years ago in the wake of a series of mismanagement and corruption scandals that had the agency on the brink of federal receivership.

He said he has moved aggressively to reform the agency's financial procedures and improve its practices. Dozens of staffers, including Taracena, have been fired or placed on leave. Several have been referred to the district attorney's office for criminal prosecution.

But Hahn, whose district includes housing projects such as Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, said she believed the authority needed more scrutiny from city officials.

The authority, a free-standing agency run by a mayor-appointed commission, receives almost all its funding from the federal government.

But Hahn said that when the authority cuts programs or wastes money, the city sometimes must step in. Her motion noted several examples. In 2002, the Los Angeles Police Department had to step up patrol of the city housing projects after the authority cut its police force.

More recently, she said, city officials have had to push the authority to keep computer labs and community recreation centers at the projects open after cuts.

"Is there really a lack of funds or are they just being spent on the wrong priorities?" she said.

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