Saturday, December 19, 2015

ETHICAL AND LEGAL ISSUES OF FREELANCE JOURNALISTS DOING INVESTIGATIVE WORK - PART II

My latest Freelance Toolbox column, and last from my seat as Secretary-Blogger for the Freelance Executive Committee, is now out. I will still contribute to the SPJ freelance community.

The entire November-December issue of Quill is available for free here, and will be for about the next four weeks. After that it's reserved for SPJ members only, along with all archives. Andrew Seaman's ethics column is always good reading. Here, the second installment of my teachable moments doing digs as a freelancer -



Thursday, October 22, 2015

ETHICAL AND LEGAL ISSUES OF FREELANCE JOURNALISTS DOING INVESTIGATIVE WORK - PART I

The September-October issue of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, is out. For this installment of the Freelance Toolbox column, I wrote about ethical and legal fuzzy areas freelancers face when doing a dig. Short version: learn from my costly mistakes and do not submit a single word, or even discuss stories at length, without a cast-iron contract.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

DOWNTOWN REAL ESTATE TRIVIA: RENTING RETAIL SPACE IN THE L.A. MALL

The Los Angeles Mall is city-owned and thus bolsters the General Fund, the biggest pot and largest deficit among the city's accounts.

Retail spaces at the Los Angeles Mall, which sits below City Hall East between Main and Los Angeles streets, go for between $1 and $2 per square foot, according the leasing documents available.

The rent at the coffee/smoothie shop that used to be a Robek's is $1.45 per square foot. The same proprietor is taking over a separate kiosk where rent is actually higher than an enclosed retail space. There, she will pay $1.65 per square foot.

Leasing space requires submission of a proposal as if responding to a standard city request for proposal, and commitment to paying a living wage. But like private sector applicants to a property manager or owner, the shops must demonstrate business acumen and financial solvency.

Café Michel will be replaced by Filipino restaurant Pili Manila Grill. There, the rent is $1.35 per square foot.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

CHEVALIER'S CORRECTION

My piece on longtime Larchmont destination Chevalier's Bookstore is now up at Larchmont Ledger and needing a correction.
In a conversation with his friend and fellow bookworm, Bert Deixler, Holter proposed buying the store. The two local residents approached Winthrop, and by the end of October they were the new owners of Chevalier’s.
It was actually Deixler who suggested buying the store to Holter, not Holter's idea.

Holter at the time said, "Yeah right!" and brushed off the suggestion. But after thinking about it and seeing the barren store again, he changed his mind.

More backstory on Chevalier's, and the other two independent bookstores I wrote about, Stories on Sunset in Echo Park and Skylight Books in Los Feliz, is here.

Monday, July 27, 2015

RYU WILL TRY TO END LABONGE'S LEGACY OF PAGEANTRY OVER PUBLIC WORKS

Last month Pat Morrison sat down with then-Councilman LaBonge on his way out of city council, where he has looted managed Council District 4 since 2001. In his interview, true to LaBonge form, he kissed an acquaintance through glass, used a chocolate chip cookie to illustrate better council district divisions, and called valid questions (including mine) about frivolous spending of public works money "horse s---" because money spent to illuminate the Los Angeles Zoo - which is already funded with taxpayer dollars via a nebulous non-profit with highly paid executives - brings people joy. Morrison persisted, asking if that should be the work of government: 
You were criticized for spending money from your discretionary fund on things like holiday lights around the zoo instead of, say, on potholes.
That was a bunch of horse---- because the zoo lights bring joy. The DWP years ago created the holiday lightfest in Griffith Park. That $100,000 brought nearly 200,000 people to the zoo at night. 
Is it the city's job to bring joy to people?
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, three times plus. Where there's joy, there's love, and if there's love, there's life.
The platitudes in the last sentence are pure LaBonge in that it speaks in feel-good concept, and not specific numbers. Even in the waning days of his reign, when questions persisted about where his district's funds went and someone else would soon access the accounts, LaBonge was pivoting from transparency to pageantry.

Now David Ryu is taking charge, and seeking to implement actual discretion in the use of the discretionary funds that LaBonge repurposed from public works to "the arts" and "cultural exchange" until the very end of his term. Ryu's motion to set up a mechanism for reviewing use of funds, with constituent input, goes to city council tomorrow (emphasis added):
Council offices receive discretionary funding in several ways. Unfortunately, in some cases the expenditure of these revenues have not had much transparency, and from here on need to be reviewed and validated, in order to give our projects traction. While this may be a problem throughout the City, several local news outlets have highlighted some especially extreme misuse of funds within Council District 4. Going forward, the best way to prevent even the appearance of abuse is to apply a healthy dose of community input and public accountability. We need to starting thinking “outside the box” for answers that will give us an advantage.
The goal of an advisory task force would be to make this process as transparent as possible. A specific plan should be established to show how much the District is receiving and how much of it can be spent. The input of the community is crucial in navigating these expenditures for the District, and the decisions made should be up to those who live in the District. 
One takeaway is that media heat did force transparency. But only under Ryu, who understands his mandate. LaBonge was grabbing at funding until the end. 

The day before the Pat Morrison interview published, LaBonge got his council colleagues to issue a new contract out of AB 1290 funds - discretionary money for district improvements - so that a plaque and monument could commemorate the role of a Native American tribe in Fern Dell in Griffith Park, near the site of a bridge repair that the first contract paid for.  My request for the contract, not retrievable in the city's online system where contracts are usually housed, is pending in the city clerk's office. 

The purpose of AB1290 funds is pure public benefit, like blight reduction, public works, and economic development. But city councilmembers can use the money as they see fit, and argue for necessity outside of expected uses like sidewalk repairs and graffiti removal. Councilmember Martinez, for example, recently cleared funding for a police "party car" to patrol her San Fernando Valley district for parties and gatherings in public spaces that become disruptive. She obtained permission from her council colleagues to apply $20,000 to staff an LAPD patrol in problem areas.

On June 26, with just five days left in office, LaBonge filed a motion to give $60,000 of the district's money away to another council district, out of both AB1290 funds and another discretionary fund, to different initiatives and non-profits, organizations whose donors need not be disclosed. However some organizations, like the Los Angeles Beautification Team, list their donors, and they show plenty of big business influence, including the property developers, and tourist-magnet film studios that create the kind of congestion LaBonge's constituents eventually grew tired of, punishing his administration with rejection in the voting booth. LaBonge's chief of staff, Carolyn Ramsay, was considered a front runner to replace him in the May election.

As the election approached, Los Feliz Ledger and Los Angeles Times reporting on LaBonge's shell game with taxpayer dollars funneled to nebulous funds with unknown donors non-profit community organizations caught up with him, as Ryu dogged Ramsay with the phrase "slush fund" at debates and in the media. Apart from the Ledger's persistence on public works money spent on the frivolous parties and glamorous art events that are hallmark LaBonge pageantry, the Los Angeles Times' Emily Alpert-Reyes wrote an excellent piece on infrastructure disrepair in Hancock Park becoming a liability for Ramsay.

Tomorrow, along with getting his new council colleagues to take a first step at tighter controls on discretionary spending, Ryu will also ask them to kill LaBonge's last minute $60,000 giveaway to a central Los Angeles district, in addition to separate six-figure packages. 

The transfers had not yet gone before council when LaBonge's term ended on June 30. The following day, Ryu used his first day in office to rescind the motions and suggest new spending procedures instead.

The other transfers included: 
  • A package of $115,000 in transfers for various public works and improvements in Hancock Park and in Griffith Park, which included a request that the city controller be "authorized to waive any procedural and administrative requirements in this matter to effectuate the transfer as expeditiously as possible."
  • A package of $191,830 in transfers for similar public works and improvements, plus $40,000 in nondescript community services, with the same language urging instant transfer without review
  • A package of $242,500 in transfers to various organizations, including to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Ford Theatre, two organizations with ties to Kamilla Blanche-Stern, a LaBonge staffer and director of a non-profit housed at city hall which refused to turn over documents or disclose any outputs or outcomes. Blanche-Stern is paid by taxpayer dollars, to manage funds that flow into a city council office anonymously, and has at least once been retained to perform work on contract that she was already being paid for on salary. Persistent questioning about what the non-profit actually does, and multiple requests for documents and financial data, produced no answers.












Monday, July 20, 2015

INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES LIVE!

So, the independent bookstore is not dead. At least not in Los Angeles. I visited Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Stories on Sunset in Echo Park, and Chevalier's Books on Larchmont for forthcoming articles for the Ledger papers, and found full stores with interesting stories and committed customers.

People still use libraries too. I was at the Silver Lake Library twice last week, and parents actually go with their kids and read from printed books, not iPads and Kindles.

I wasn't allowed the editorial space for all the photos and interesting bits about the stores, their ownership, and their strategy. The outtakes -


A longtime neighborhood hang, Skylight Books has been open since 2006, and owned by the same LLC. Some of the individual investors have changed out, but a core group continues to shepherd the store.

The resident cat, Franny, is very sweet. She just hangs out with customers all day. She is named for J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey.

The store is named for the diamond-shaped skylights that illuminate the store beautifully.

Skylight continues to engage community support with aggressive event planning both on- and off-site. Next in the pipeline is bringing children's book authors into elementary schools.



Chevalier's has only had three owners since 1940. Filis Winthrop took over from the Chevalier family in 1990, after 50 years of family ownership and operation. When two avid readers and local residents observed decreasing selection and difficulty with special orders last fall, they approached Winthrop to buy the store. One a lawyer and one a businessman, neither has ever owned a bookstore. One customer I talked to while visiting does not even know how long she's been going, but it's between 30 and 40 years. People who have lived in the neighborhood for that long run into and socialize with each other there. The store still has house accounts.


Stories on Sunset sits on Sunset Boulevard on the same block as Sage Vegan. The manager, Alex Maslansky, says they're doing well because it's a bookstore for locals. He was at Book Soup for seven years before Stories, and his belief is that good stores are a reflection of place. 



The customer is Eren Magri, who is about to open his own Echo Park business with The Semi-Tropic, a beer and wine bar on Glendale Boulevard at Montana Avenue. It was his first time in the store. It was not a conscious decision to patronize an independent bookstore, but he shops local. 


Stories' bottom line is bolstered by the café. Often full as it is here on a Thursday morning, it produces about half of the store's monthly revenue. 




Saturday, July 18, 2015

UCLA HOSPITALS HACKED

The UCLA hospital system was the site of another cyber attack, the LA Times reported yesterday.

I, along with Holli Herdeg, wrote about hospital data as one of several Los Angeles critical infrastructures vulnerable to cyber attack for EPICenter LA. In the article, we covered a 2014 breach into Community Health Systems, the second largest hospital operator in the country. Details of that attack were not provided until mandatory disclosure in an SEC filing:
"The attacker was able to bypass the Company’s security measures and successfully copy and transfer certain data outside the Company… this intruder has typically sought valuable intellectual property, such as medical device and equipment development data. However, in this instance the data transferred was non-medical patient identification data related to the Company’s physician practice operations and affected approximately 4.5 million individuals who, in the last five years, were referred for or received services from physicians affiliated with the Company."
Interestingly, the number of records possibly compromised, 4.5 million, was the same as at UCLA. Is there something about a cache of 4.5 million records that is useful to hackers?

The largest patient record hack to date was Anthem's breach in January. A database with about 80 million records was infiltrated. The actual number of records estimated stolen was in the tens of millions, an Anthem representative told USA Today.

That breach was organized and targeted sensitive information, like social security numbers. Anthem said in a statement:
"Cyber attackers executed a very sophisticated attack to gain unauthorized access to one of Anthem's IT systems and have obtained personal information relating to from consumers and Anthem employees who are currently covered, or who have received coverage in the past."
At UCLA, data obtained also included social security numbers, we well as treatment records. Affected individuals will get a year of free credit monitoring. The university has not yet explained how it happened. The FBI is investigating.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

MICHELTORENA TUNNEL CLOSURE MOVES FORWARD

The city council today advanced the possibility of permanently closing the pedestrian tunnel on Sunset Boulevard by authorizing cost analysis, with a report due back in city council on an undecided date.

The analysis is moving forward against the hopes of a group of local art enthusiasts who want it converted to an outdoor gallery modeled on the one in Cypress Village.

I first learned about issues with the tunnel, and plans to close it, from one of Silver Lake city council member Mitch O'Farrell's field deputies. Then O'Farrell's press rep said no plans exist, weeks before O'Farrell filed the motion that today became a city council order to look at costs and find budget to get it done.


Monday, June 22, 2015

O'FARRELL TAKES A STEP TO CLOSE PEDESTRIAN TUNNEL, AGAINST EARLIER STATEMENT

Weeks after his press deputy insisted that plans to permanently close the Micheltorena Pedestrian Tunnel amounted to an unfounded rumor, Councilman Mitch O'Farrell filed a motion in city council to request a cost report on closure. That is, he needs to know how much money to come up with to close a tunnel he said he has no plans for, though I first learned about those plans from another one of his deputies in April.

Art supporters in Silver Lake hope to make an outdoor gallery out of the tunnel that extends under Sunset Boulevard, what used to be a pedestrian passageway designed to get kids on foot to school safely. They hold the Cypress Village Art  Tunnel as their model, and hope to stop the cementing before the city finds the money to get it done.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

TIRE SLASHINGS ARE BACK IN SILVER LAKE

I wrote about tire slashings in Silver Lake for this month's Los Feliz Ledger. Pending corrections will update the map and copy to accurately reflect the area that gets hit: Effie Street and Crestmont, Maltman, and Golden Gate avenues. According to one of the unnamed sources mentioned in the story, about 90 percent of the activity is within a 100-yard radius of the corner of Effie Street and Golden Gate Avenue.

I didn't have the editorial space to go as deep as I wanted to. Within this story, there were several issues which merit examination:
  1. The use of the senior lead officer system in the LAPD - the very relationships that keep the police in touch with neighborhoods keep benevolent residents from criticizing, not wanting throw the officer who's become their friend under the bus
  2. The larger trend of property crime in Los Angeles, overshadowed by a recent spike in violent crime
  3. What it actually takes to arrest and prosecute any offender, and why it's not hard to be a career offender and face little punishment
  4. The effects of Prop 47
  5. Underreported property crime because of the above 
All are now dogeared for future stories. If you have a story of your own experience with these issues, email me.

Monday, May 25, 2015

LA CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT'S INSIDE TIES TO BE CHALLENGED BY NEWCOMER

This morning the LA Times' David Zahniser wrote about the arrival of David Ryu in Los Angeles City Council, and how he could interact with that body's president, longtime City Hall denizen Herb Wesson. 

Zahniser's article primarily covered the election's outcome as a function of controversial redistricting and the resultant disgruntled voters looking to smack back at City Hall, but he also discussed Wesson's role:
Wesson, who has served on the council for a decade, said he expects to get along with Ryu just fine. The job of a council president, he emphasized, is to help the 14 other members become successful. Ryu, he pointed out, had few serious policy disagreements with Ramsay.
The council president has another responsibility, which wields dealmaking (or breaking) power over all legislative action: agendizing. Wesson, who supported Ryu's opponent Carolyn Ramsay, decides what goes on the agenda when, and how to break out single motions and ordinances into several, ostensibly for a more granular discussion of related topics or, depending on how cynically one looks at it, chopping up a rival's policy to force only piecemeal progress.

The council president also appoints chairs to subcommittees like the Public Safety Committee, which manages hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant monies for regional disaster and terrorism preparedness, and the Planning and Land Use Committee, which determines the residential and commercial makeup of Los Angeles.

Ramsay is, like Wesson, a City Hall insider. She was current Council District 4 representative Tom LaBonge's chief of staff. The election could be interpreted as a referendum on business as usual at City Hall, as Ramsay declined to answer questions about a nondescript charity in LaBonge's office, even though the nonprofit, Sister Cities, used public money for undisclosed outcomes during her tenure. In at least one instance a LaBonge staffer, Kamilla Blanche, received money on behalf of Sister Cities from another city department, Cultural Affairs, to perform work she was already doing on salary. The transfer of taxpayer funds was authorized in two contracts between May 2013 and April 2014, totaling $65,000.






Ramsay touted her experience in every area of the council office in debates, claiming knowledge of each decision, but backed away from responsibility for the charity. On Feb. 24, after a candidate caucus, I asked Ramsay about it for the Ledger papers:

Walmsley: I wanted to ask about Sister Cities. You texted me on Sunday that you weren’t involved in Sister Cities. And I did talk to the councilmember and he said that you weren’t. Although you were Chief of Staff, you were separate from the Sister Cities, the council office side and the non profit side. You weren’t really involved in either. 
Ramsay: Right. 
Walmsley: That is a little bit at odds with some of your statements. Like at the last candidate caucus the comment you made is that you’re really prepared from day one to do everything, and you know every detail. Are there other exceptions to your participation in the office, as Chief of Staff? 
Ramsay: I don’t understand your question. I’m so sorry. 
Walmsley: Your comment at the last caucus was that you’re prepared from day one. That’s your advantage. You’ve managed every detail – 
Ramsay: Sister Cities is a separate organization. It is a 501(c)3 nonprofit – 
Walmsley: But Kamilla, who is a city employee, part of what I’ve been pursuing [in documents requests to clarify her role and the source of her salary], she is a city staffer, correct? She is paid by the city? 
Ramsay: You know, you have to ask him, ask [Councilmember LaBonge] about anything with his current staff. 
Walmsley: Did you oversee all spending? 
Ramsay: There were several staffers who were involved in that but Councilmember LaBonge, he had the final say. And there were initiatives that he wanted that I supported and some that I didn’t support and you know, I was very clear with him on those points. 
Walmsley: So there was one that was the AB1290 funds, $20,000 in funds that went to the zoo. Now, Berlin is a sister city, but it appears it did not go through the 501(c)(3) non profit [instead it went directly from the AB1290 reserve to an initiative with Berlin Zoo]. There is discretionary use, but part of that [fund’s purpose] is public services, which is something that you’ve really emphasized in your campaign. And that went, money went – 
Ramsay: You’d really have to ask the council office about these issues. 
Walmsley: These are things that happened under your tenure though, as Chief of Staff. 
Ramsay: And these are decisions that the CM made. And I think he said that to you.
Ryu picked up on the unanswered questions and began to dog Ramsay in debates about "slush fund" spending.

Transparency in spending of discretionary funds has been one of Ryu's campaign promises. He takes office July 1, which is the first day he will be allowed to issue a motion - essentially suggested legislation or operational procedure - to manage his district's pot of flexible cash differently. Ryu has also talked about pushing the entire body toward more disclosure and cooperation.

Once Ryu files his motions, they become public, but Wesson will decide when Ryu's 14 new city council colleagues address them.

----
Note: A previous version of this post did not contain documents. The text is the same. 





Saturday, May 9, 2015

CYPRESS VILLAGE ART TUNNEL WALK

The Cypress Village Art Tunnel was open to the public tonight, providing a model for what Silver Lake hopes to create out of the now-closed pedestrian tunnel next to Micheltorena Elementary School on Sunset Boulevard.














Thursday, April 30, 2015

SILVER LAKE WANTS ITS OWN ART TUNNEL

Silver Lake art enthusiasts want their own version of the Cypress Village pedestrian tunnel-turned-outdoor-gallery, as I wrote for the Los Feliz Ledger. The article is short and I was limited to one photo. Unfortunate, as the photos tell the story of how the Sunset tunnel in Silver Lake now sits, and what Yancey Quiñones created in Cypress Park.

Another untold element of the story is why people believe that it will be closed permanently. I first heard it from Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell's deputy in a Silver Lake Neighborhood Council meeting. But on follow up with that office, O'Farrell's press rep Tony Arranaga told me he didn't know where that came from. A rep for public works also said no projects were in queue.


The view into the tunnel on the south side of Sunset Boulevard at Golden Gate Avenue, across the street from Micheltorena Elementary School. Photo courtesy: Matthew Mooney

The view into the tunnel on the north side of Sunset Boulevard just outside the perimeter of the Micheltorena Elementary School campus. The proximity of the tunnel - a haven for transients and drug users according to the LAPD - to elementary school-aged kids was one of the reasons for the movement to close it. Photo courtesy: Matthew Mooney




The tunnel is visible through the window on the Loreto Street side of the coffeeshop. 
The tunnel sits, clean, pained, and locked, apart from designated hours for tours.

Simple vertical planks with nails are used to hang the artwork. 



Quiñones pays out of his own pocket, with no city or artist reimbursement, to light the tunnel. He bought a generator for it, to power light bulbs installed for each tour. 






Sunday, February 8, 2015

GOODBYE, EPICENTER LA

As seems to be the nature of grant-funded projects, mine is suddenly over. I've been Project Manager and Editor of the Los Angeles Health Care Systems Security Project and its website, EPICenter LA, since May 2012. I knew it was coming and was ready to move on, but expected to make this transition beginning in March rather than late January. 

After a generous first wave of funding from the Annenberg Foundation, a second wave from other organizations did not arrive in time.

I would have liked a little more time to launch the enterprise reporting we'd planned for the blog. We'd only just begun, with a team in place and a schedule finalized. Finding material for 124 unique pages of mostly curated content for a centralized repository of terrorism and disaster resilience information had consumed much time. But we'd shifted focus to the blog and I thought we were finally off and running.

We did build a foundation. EPICenter LA is live, with information for multiple audiences, including the average Los Angeles citizen looking for simple tools to prepare for an event. 




I hope the team carries it forward, and finds the funding to do needed enterprise and investigative reporting on the city's major vulnerabilities to natural disaster and terrorist attack, both cyber and kinetic.

I will probably miss the UCLA undergraduates on the team the most. I was regularly stunned by the focus, intelligence, organization, and maturity of 19- and 20-year old students with no experience on a large-scale public policy project. Playing a small part in helping them to explore their interests was so rewarding.

Thank you to our funders, the Annenberg Foundation, Wallis Foundation, and CIBER, the wonderful team, our collaborators, and our readership. I am grateful.




Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DOWNTOWN REAL ESTATE TRIVIA: BLANKSPACES WAS A WOOLWORTH'S

The Pershing Square-adjuacent mill co-working space Blankspaces, stylized as b:LA for the hipsters whose office budgets it is trying to magnetize, was once the department store Schulte United. Councilmember Huizar, among others, did a relaunch of sorts for 529 S. Broadway last year, highlighting its changes over the years, and rebranding it as a center for creativity.

On my way out of Blankspaces after nearly a year at multiple locations (and other unpleasant coworking experiences before that), I thought I had the scoop on this trivia, fascinated as I am by a time when going out to a department store was a big deal. But Bianca Barragan covered the conversion of the space last year for Curbed.