Sunday, February 28, 2016

LOS ANGELES CITY HALL IS A BIG BLACK HOLE

The Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am a proud member, has an annual Black Hole Award to "highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know." Timely, as I've been meaning to revisit the battle I fought last year with then-City Council District 4 representative Tom LaBonge, his obscured 501c3 [supposedly non-profit] organization Sister Cities, and what felt like all of Los Angeles City Hall.

Some of it emerged earlier this month when a citizen lawsuit pushed the city attorney's office to go hunting for documents that disappeared from LaBonge's office, and the contents of the shredder- and incinerator-bound file boxes suggest illegal behavior including campaigning from sitting office. The Los Angeles Times later obtained emails showing willful refusal of my document requests around Sister Cities.

My nomination is a bit scattershot, as I learned of the award and the impending deadline last minute. I rushed through, but you can get a picture of why I'm nominating LaBonge, Sister Cities Inc., and the general culture at 200 N. Spring Street. With the exception of some parties'  contact information for the judging committee's follow ups, this is it in its entirety:

I nominate Los Angeles City Hall for the 2016 Black Hole Award for having no enforcement mechanism when a city agency refuses to comply with a public records request. In California, the governing law is the California Public Records Act. In February 2015, I sought documents from a nebulous 501c3 nonprofit operated by a sitting Los Angeles city councilman from his city hall office. After being bounced to different departments and being denied answers to straightforward questions, I asked who is in charge of requiring a city department to comply with the law. The answer is no one. If you don’t get your documents, your only available remedy is a lawsuit. This is intimidating and costly even to a major news outlet, let alone an independent journalist.
Background
In September 2013, I was project manager and editor of a non-partisan security policy project (Los Angeles Health Care Systems Security Project/EPICenterLA.org) that endeavored to identify and mitigate the Los Angeles region’s vulnerability to attack, with an emphasis on the health care system. LAHCSSP/EPICenterLA.org Project Director Peter Katona and I met with then-Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, Sister Cities of Los Angeles Director Kamilla Blanche, and LaBonge’s then-Chief of Staff Carolyn Ramsay. I sought the meeting because one of our goals was to form partnerships with, and acquire best practices from, other cities whose terror and disaster resilience challenges mirrored Los Angeles’: large metropolises with diverse populations, with several soft and hard targets, and/or sitting on a coast. Those are primarily San Francisco, New York, London, and Manila. A quick Google search on “Los Angeles sister cities” returned LaBonge’s office and Sister Cities Director Kamilla Blanche. Scheduling the meeting was challenging because Blanche did not understand how the work of Sister Cities of Los Angeles, an organization housed at Los Angeles City Hall and purporting to strengthen relationships between cities, was at all germane to the mission of LAHCSSP/EPICenterLA.org. In the meeting, Blanche had little response on the actual function of Sister Cities of Los Angeles, and little knowledge of international partners. Her repeated suggestion was to reach out to international cities via the British Consulate, as that was her main international relationship because of shared events planning, even though London is not a sister city, and our project director already had some London relationships. 
The meeting concluded with the decision that I should produce what LaBonge termed a ‘one sheet’: a one-page description of what we hoped to accomplish. He was to forward it to LA’s 24 sister cities around the world and help establish relationships. I produced the one-sheet, but it never resulted in any connections. I made mental note of all of the above, but did not pursue it immediately.
I left LAHCSSP/EPICenterLA.org in February 2015, and joined a small local paper, the Los Feliz Ledger, as a freelancer almost at the same time. LaBonge’s council seat was up for election because he’d been termed out, and two of his former staffers, including Ramsay, were in the primary election to compete for his seat in the May 2015 general election. In an early story meeting with Ledger Publisher-Editor Allison Cohen, I suggested an investigation into LaBonge’s office, particularly Sister Cities. Cohen had already planned a dig into LaBonge’s staffing budget, rumored to be one of the highest in the city, with frequent turnover.  
The (attempted) investigation
On February 13, 2015 I emailed Sister Cities Director Kamilla Blanche requesting an interview about Sister Cities, and two years of budget documents. I did not mention the election, or suggest Sister Cities had any connection to any campaign. I received an email on February 18 that she would only respond after the election. We continued to pursue documents but never obtained them. Here are the articles published:
LaBonge Dodges Records Request “Until After Election”
Covers the reasons for our request, and Blanche’s tying the Sister Cities non-profit to the election, a link we never suggested.

LaBonge and Ramsay Decline to Discuss Sister Cities Details
Covers timeline and provides transcripts and email screenshots, as the Ledger had received criticism for unfair characterizations and making leaps. Note that we pushed in accordance with the terms of the California Public Records Act. Also note that in our phone interview, LaBonge promised to show me all documents. I now know that at this point, Avak Keotohian, a city legislative analyst who is charged with ensuring compliance wtih city rules and requirements, had already advised Blanche to not respond in a timely fashion, counter to the requirement of the PRA. See the Los Angeles Times article below under the header Some Documents Surface. In that article, I am the Ledger reporter to which the writer is referring.



By April I had tried everything, finally sharing this timeline with Rob Wilcox, the media point person at the city attorney’s office, hoping for some mode of enforcement:

Date
Items
Form of communication, specifics
Fri. Feb. 13
Will SC continue after LaBonge’s term?
Budget last 2y
Accomplishments – outputs & outcomes, last 2y
Timeline for the above
Request phone interview Walmsley-Blanche on Mon. Feb. 16 or Tues. Feb. 17
Walmsley emailed Blanche, ccd LaBonge’s press rep Brenda Gonzalez
Wed. Feb. 18
No items provided, only wrote “Thank you for your email.  I would be happy to answer your request after the election in June 2015.”
Blanche reply to Walmsley Feb. 13 email
Wed. Feb. 18
Reminded Blanche of requirements of CPRA, attached to email, and again request interview while docs being gathered
Walmsley reply to Blanche Feb. 18 email
Thu. Feb. 19
No items provided, no interview date, no timeline, only “thanks for your reply, yes we are very busy here, I will look into this and get back to you”
Blanche reply to Walmsley Feb. 19 email
Thu. Feb. 19
Requesting timeline: “By when can I can expect to hear from you?”
Walmsley reply to Blanche Feb. 19 email
Thu. Feb. 19 – Fri. Feb. 20
Seeking some comment or published from City Ethics Commission. They do not comment and only provide background. Are under the impression that there is an official Sister Cities contract that allows the non-profit to be housed at City Hall
Walmsley calls to City Ethics Commission main #, Lisa Ishimaru, Michael Altschule, emails to Ishimaru and Altschule
Sat. Feb. 21
Follow up email to Gonzalez as LFL was on deadline, asking:
1. What does our request have to do with the election?
2. What was Carolyn Ramsay’s role in Sister Cities?
3. How many trips has the Councilmember taken for sister cities initiatives, either as part of the CD-4 initiative, or the non-profit?
Walmsley email to Gonzalez, Blanche and Cohen ccd
Sat. Feb. 21
LaBonge brief comments on phone
Walmsley-LaBonge phone conversation #1 (transcribed here)
Sat. Feb. 22
LaBonge comments on phone about 25 mins, but nothing substantive. Did promise documents
Walmsley-LaBonge phone conversation #2 (transcribed here)
Mon. Feb. 23
Blanche directs Ledger to Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA): “In response to your public records request dated February 13th 2105, I must direct you to the Department of Cultural Affairs, as they are the keeper of the records that you are referring to.”
Blanche email to Walmsley, directing Ledger to DCA for documents
Mon. Feb. 23
Irrespective of location of documents, would like an answer on timeline related to election. “Thank you, but I'd still be interested to take your comments - or another CD4 representative's comments - on why you specifically determined that those documents would only be available after the election. How is Sister Cities (either CD 4 department or the non-profit) related to the election calendar? We are very close to print, but you have about 30 minutes to comment if you'd like.”
Walmsley reply to Blanche Feb. 23 email
Mon. Feb. 23
Blanche directing questions to CLA: “I would like to direct your question re Sister Cities to the CLA's office.”
Blanche reply to Walmsley Feb. 23 email
March
Asking Rob Wilcox at City Attorney what remedies exist for unanswered PRAs outside of a lawsuit, he checks to see if any organizational chart to indicate authority to force a PRA response
Fri. Mar. 13
Request City Clerk provide location of docs – not gather info, but just tell the newspaper where it is, and clarify whether the City Legislative Analyst or Department of Cultural Affairs will explain role of 501c3 versus CD4 paid staff
Walmsley email to Cindy Hernandez in City Clerk’s office
Tues. Mar. 17
City Clerk response from Ruben Viramontes on behalf of Cindy Hernandez:
“The Office of the City Clerk is in receipt of your CPRA Request pertaining to the Sister Cities Program.  Unfortunately, this program is not administered by our office but rather is administered by the Department of Cultural Affairs. Their Department would have detailed information as it pertains to documents and expenditures.  If you are looking for copies of  MOU's/Contracts with Sister Cities, these may be available by searching City's Council File Management System (CFMS).  A link to the data base is provided here.  http://cityclerk.lacity.org/lacityclerkconnect/index.cfm?fa=c.search&tab=contract.
You may also want to search the Controller's Office open data website.  This website allows you to search for particular expenditures by entering keywords related to the content you are looking for.  A link to the website is provided here. https://controllerdata.lacity.org/.
Lastly, if you are trying to contact the CLA's Office, their general information number is 213-473-5709.
Hope you find this information helpful. “
Viramontes email to Walmsley
Tues. Mar. 17
Requesting documents, relaying above timeline to James Burks, Director of Special Projects in the DCA, identified by the Department of Cultural Affairs as appropriate point person
Walmsley email to Burks
Tues. Mar. 17
Requesting documents, relaying above timeline to Avak Keotahian in the Chief Legislative Analyst’s office, identified by the CLA receptionist as appropriate point person. Attached IRS 501c3 Compliance Guide and CPRA
Walmsley email to Keotahian (I now know that it was Keotahian, charged with monitoring compliance, who had advised Blanche to not answer me almost a month earlier.)
Thu. Mar. 19
Walmsley asked LaBonge in person where docs are and when can view. LaBonge said DCA.
In person at Ivanhoe Elementary school for SL Reservoir Bypass Construction community meeting
Mon. Mar. 23
Follow up email to Burks
Walmsley email to Burks
Mon. Mar. 23
Brief phone call with Burks, who committed to Tues. Mar. 24 phone interview after 10 a.m.
Walmsley and Burks
Tues. Mar. 24
Unanswered calls to Burks during scheduled time, 10:10 and 10:31
Walmsley to Burks
Tues. Mar. 24
Follow up email to Burks after unanswered call
Walmsley to Burks
Tues. Mar. 24
Phone conversation with Wilcox – follow up on what to do about unanswered PRAs. What city department oversees and pushes departments to answer them?
Sent link to transcripts of LaBonge interviews, gave overview
Walmsley with Wilcox
Late March (voicemail did not create timestamp)
Burks message for Walmsley: You’ll get the documents in a couple weeks in an email (paraphrasing).
Burks voicemail for Walmsley.
Thu. Apr. 9
Follow up email to Burks about voicemail – what specifically will be sent and when:
Walmsley to Burks 8:45 a.m.
Thu. Apr. 9
Follow up call to Burks about email sent this morning. Burks said “I have no idea” what content of documents are and when will be sent; they will come from Matthew Rudnick, Asst. Gen. Mgr of DCA, who will obtain them from DCA’s accounting unit.
Walmsley to Burks 2:24
Thu. Apr. 9
Phone call to Rudnick via DCA main #. IDd self, receptionist said he was unavailable
Walmsley to Rudnick 2:27
Thu. Apr. 9
Email to Matthew Rudnick, a forward of last email to James Burks. 
Walmsley to Rudnick 2:31


The answer I received is that the city attorney does not involve itself in PRAs; it will only advise a city department whether they are obligated to comply. Even with a timeline and documentation showing a failure to comply, the city attorney did not get involved.
We eventually got some old salary data for Blanche which shows she was paid by the city at the same time she was contracted as a Sister Cities representative, by a separate city department to do work that is identical to her role description as a LaBonge staffer. We only got it because of a citizen’s separate request whose timing was fortunate. She had been following Ledger coverage and shared the files with us. This is the article that covered that revelation:

LaBonge: Staffer Didn’t “Double Dip”


The Saber Rattling
A lawyer for Sister Cities emailed and snail mailed this letter on April 30:
                                               
Re: Requests for Information From Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc. 

Dear Ms. Cohen and Ms. Walmsley:                                                        
I represent Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc. Ms. Kamilla Blanche has asked that I respond to your requests this year for various organizational, corporate governance, tax filings, and financial records of Sister Cities. I have also read your "May 2015" article titled "LaBonge Says Staffer Didn't 'Double Dip." Please direct any further communications on the subject of those records to my office.                                                           
Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc. is a private, not-for-profit corporation in regular good standing with the California Secretary of State. It is neither controlled nor entirely funded by any government agency; some of its funding comes from private donations. Sister Cities does receive publicly vetted funding from public entities, such as the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), whose goal, as stated on the DCA Web site, is "to enhance the quality of life for Los Angeles' 4 million residents and 40 million annual visitors."                                                      
A board comprised of volunteer directors oversees Sister Cities of Los Angeles. Ms. Blanche and various other individuals who serve the organization as members of its board all do so voluntarily and do not receive any salary or wages from Sister Cities or any other entity for their services. None of the funding Sister Cities receives is given to any of its volunteers as compensation. DCA has never paid Ms. Blanche to perform any services for it or Sister Cities. The "documents" and "contracts" that you refer to in your article are presumably those from DCA, and I understand that you have copies of the DCA contract. You will note that the contract in question did not provide for payment of money to Ms. Blanche. All money donated by DCA was and is for the benefit of Sister Cities and its programs. The DCA contract was with Sister Cities, not Ms. Blanche.
It appears the Los Feliz Ledger is attempting to associate Ms. Blanche with the alleged wrongful receipt of public donations. As stated by Lisa Schechter in your article, money received was used for and by Sister Cities; Ms. Blanche did not "double dip" or "pocket" those funds. In fact, she could not have done so because all payments from DCA were made out to Sister Cities of Los Angeles Inc. Any insinuation or accusation otherwise is false, unsubstantiated, and unfairly harmful to the reputations of Sister Cities of Los Angeles, Inc., Ms. Blanche, and DCA.
To the extent that you have requested any information under the California Public Records Act (CPRA), my understanding of the CPRA and related case law authorities informs me that my client is not subject to the CPRA. Until and unless informed otherwise, Sister Cities is not obligated to produce organizational, corporate governance, tax or financial records, nor does it have to provide copies or any internal memoranda or communications. Sister Cities is not a "state or local agency," as defined by Government Code Section 6252, subdivisions (a) and (f). Nor is Sister Cities a "nonprofit entity that is a legislative body of a local agency pursuant to subdivisions (c) and (d) of [Government Code] Section 54952." (See Gov. Code § 6252, subd. (b).) Moreover, I believe that none of your requested information constitutes a "public record" (defined by Gov. Code § 6252, subd. (e)). If you have any questions or concerns, please reach out at your convenience.



Some documents surface
A citizen lawsuit for documents out of LaBonge’s office pushed the city attorney to seek out documents. That search eventually produced documents marked for destruction earlier this month, as reported in these two Los Angeles Times articles:
Campaign records found among Ex-L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge's office documents
Feb. 5, 2016
Documents which suggest managing campaigns and associated fundraising from LaBonge's city council office surface; the Times publishes portions of emails the paper obtained showing willful refusal to comply with the PRA

Documents ex-L.A. councilman sought to destroy are made public by successor
Feb. 6, 2016
LaBonge's successor, Councilman David Ryu, opens the documents, some of which he himself sought
Live link: http://www.latimes.com/local/cityhall/la-me-labonge-records-20160206-story.html

---
NOMINATION CRITERIA AND RESPONSES

Black Hole Award nominations should meet the following criteria:
1. Violation, in spirit or letter, of any federal or state open-government law. This means either a clear violation of the statute governing access to public records or public meetings, or using an ambiguity or loophole in the law to avoid having to comply with the law. For example: conducting multiple meetings with small groups that do not constitute a quorum, email discussions outside the public view, or charging unreasonable amounts to copy documents.
Federal:
1. 501c3s are supposed to be apolitical.
2. In their tax-exempt status are subject to open records laws in general, and specifically must provide updated copies of their 990s (tax returns)

State:
1. The California Attorney General maintains a guide for charities advising them of IRS requirements for 501c3s.
2. The California Public Records Act mandates the disclosures we requested.

2. Egregiousness. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the Black Hole Award, it should not be given for just any openness violation. Recipients should know they are trampling on the public’s right, placing personal or political interests ahead of the public good or endangering public welfare. Examples might include an agency or official who attempted to keep information secret to avoid embarrassment or hide misdeeds.
It was willful refusal, followed by an intimidating letter from a (possibly taxpayer funded) attorney, followed by an attempt to destroy documents. 

3. Impact. The case should be one that affects the public rather than an individual. The award should not be used to settle vendettas against recalcitrant bureaucrats. Withholding information should hurt the general public rather than an individual.
City Hall’s general culture of secrecy impacts everyone. As for Sister Cities specifically, it still exists at City Hall, and its donors, outputs, and actual function are still shielded from public view. It is still not clear exactly how much money moved through Sister Cities, and for what. The nature of the organization involves international travel - the kind of trips, junkets, gifts, and favors that are explicitly barred under campaign laws.

---- [end of nomination application]

There is more than what I published from the Ledger and have until now written on this blog. Any reporters with the resources (read: counsel) of a major outlet want to continue to dig?

Pete Stern
Pete Stern, a multimedia artist who made a Sister Cities promotional video and had his work showcased at Sister Citites events and through Sister Cities partners, is likely Kamilla Blanche's husband. This matters because an English artist with what looks to be a sparse U.S. portfolio got a significant amount of Los Angeles visibility out of Sister Cities connections. Blanche-Stern is referenced in city documents as Stern, but in Sister Cities content and on her LinkedIn profile as Blanche.

Blanche-Stern's LinkedIn profile as of July 2015 listed her as both working for the city and for the non-profit.


City of Los Angeles 2014 salary data listed Blanche-Stern as Kamilla Stern, a council aide on salary since 2008, being paid separately from the contracts with the city as a Sister Cities representative (see story "LaBonge: Staffer Didn't 'Double-Dip'").
We never found the marriage license or any public records that definitively tied the two, so we did not publish this part of the story. They may have been married in England, where both are from. While they're present at the same events, they haven't often been photographed together. This photo is a rare exception.

LaBonge and his wife Brigid posed with Pete Stern and Kamilla Blanche-Stern in April 2011 during BritWeek. Blanche-Stern sat on the committee for that event, part of a body that organized Stern's gallery show at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery on April 29, and his documentary's premiere screening at LACMA on April 30
The city's seal and the logo of a city department, the Department of Cultural Affairs, are included in sponsors and partners. How much public funding went to giving Pete Stern's work exposure? What was the financial arrangement between LACMA and the city/Sister Cities Inc.? LACMA was one of the targets in LaBonge's last package of funding transfers as he was leaving office


The section of the City of Los Angeles Ethics Code that addresses conflicts of interest. It is not clear  if under 2a sale of property means a sale to the city, or selling items (art) at a city-sponsored event (gallery show coordinated by one's spouse). For 2b, Stern produced a video that is still (as of March 2016) live on his Vimeo channel, but payment arrangements, if any, are not known. 


Blanche-Stern disappears
After I started asking questions while at the Ledger, her name was scrubbed from the Sister Cities website's footer, and LaBonge's office told the Ledger she was working offsite and couldn't be reached. What kind of arrangement existed between her and the city that, unlike other city hall staffers, she works from wherever she is without measurable deliverables? A significant part of her role is community engagement, including media. If she wasn't completely unavailable, she was  selectively unavailable to those asking questions. Both scenarios merit explanation.
The Sister Cities of Los Angeles website's footer in February 2015.


The Sister Cities of Los Angeles website's footer today



The zoo transaction
LaBonge transferred $20,000 of discretionary money to the Los Angeles Zoo. That money didn't go through the non-profit, but it was hyperlocal public improvement spending repurposed by LaBonge and shipped overseas in what was to be a swap of animals and their keepers with the Berlin Zoo.


Later documents show that it was only a training partnership. Animal handlers were exchanged so that they could acquire experience working with different kinds of animals, but animals were not transported back and forth.

Questions for LaBonge:

  • Should your constituents be on the hook for a property tax bill that partially funds what was to be a new attraction (new animals) for a foreign zoo?
  • You got $20,000 partly to execute the expensive international shipment of (presumably protected) species, and instead spent taxpayer funds for four individuals to boost their skill set in handling captive animals, a practice that is controversial in your district. Animal welfare at the zoo has been a topic of debate because of Billy the elephant (explored brilliantly in this Los Angeles magazine longread by Tamar Brott), who was captured in the wild and sent to the Los Angeles Zoo in a separate exchange with a foreign zoo. Why was funding zoo commerce more important than the basics in your district, where there are plenty of worn and broken streets, and vocal residents with good ideas for how to apply those funds?
  • Before the plan changed to training only, which animals were to be shipped, and how did you guarantee you'd get clearance to send them under the requirements of the federal Animal Welfare Act?  


Sister Cities of Los Angeles counsel
Who is Shanen Prout and why would a non-profit require a libel lawyer? According to his LinkedIn, he has multiple areas of practice, and is not exclusively libel. But under what circumstances would a non-profit attorney be paid to instruct a reporter to contact him for documents, rather than city, in the same letter in which he (wrongly) declares they're not public information and he won't provide them anyways? I asked a non-profit expert about this, and she told me that he can't tell me not to call city hall, because I don't work for him, and even if there were some legal method of shielding the non-profit and LaBonge from public examination, he can't tell me how to report a story.

How much does retaining Prout cost, and was that cleared through the board? Do any taxpayer dollars go to his retainer?

As an extension of a quasi-government agency, is there any sanction for crafting a letter that twists the law? For overstepping on his authority and telling me I am not allowed to call city hall in a scary letter that implies slander (i.e. a libel suit)?

Has he even read his own client's LinkedIn, which conflates the non-profit and the work of the council office clearly enough, even if a pile of documents and past event coverage didn't?


If he is advising Kamilla Blanche and Sister Cities of LA, shouldn't he address the specifics of the city's ethics rules on working for other organizations while on the clock as a city staffer? It appears from the rules that there is a workaround for Blanche/LaBonge/Sister Cities/the council office. Why didn't Prout delineate these for me rather than characterize my reporting as unfounded and slanderous? 




Ethics guidelines for outside employment




Non-profits at not just Los Angeles City Hall, but in all municipal government
How many are there? What are the loopholes? What kind of reform to sunshine laws is needed in order to make these organizations transparent? What is the current status of the Mayor's Fund, on which the Times reported last year?


LaBonge in retirement
Where is he and what is he doing now? Where has he traveled in retirement and how lavish are his accommodations? Has he gone to any of the sister cities whose global images and local economies he helped to bolster while in office? Do names of any of his hosts appear in the sister cities documents and campaign donor details (illegal to maintain from sitting office) retrieved from the file boxes LaBonge sent for destruction as he completed his term?


-------------
Note: This post originally published on Feb. 28 2016 7:32 p.m. I pulled it to add in my additional questions, and leads for other reporters to pursue the story, the following morning, Mon. Feb. 29. It was republished Wed. Mar. 6 4:47 p.m.