By Brian Frank and Zach Behrens | May 20, 2011 4:15 PM
This blog post is in support of SoCal Connected, KCET's investigative weekly news magazine. The show airs Thursdays, with encore presentations over the weekend. On-air reports are archived on its website.
Complaining to city council members or sharing a sob story may have been the best way to get gold-card treatment under the city's secretive parking citation hearing program, at least according to the picture emerging from internal e-mails obtained by SoCal Connected.
The e-mails depict conversations among staff members and public officials, including the former head of the city's transportation department and even a staffer for a California Assembly member. In some cases, staff were told to dismiss tickets without any written justification. In others, they actually discussed the relative merits of the case.
"Awwwhhhhhhh.... I told you that this one was a real tear jerker...." wrote Janet Luong, one of two special ombudsmen hired by Affiliated Computer Services, the contractor that handles parking tickets for the city of Los Angeles.
In an audit released Thursday, city controller Wendy Greuel expressed concern over the city's Gold Card Desk, a program she claimed was being used exclusively by the mayor and city council to help them seek a reduction or elimination of parking fines.
Those who knew about the program can call a dedicated phone line to bypass the ordinary procedures for contesting a ticket. Greuel suggested that only those with political pull would be able to benefit from such a program, but as the e-mails suggest, special treatment was also extended to citizens who were vocal to their council members or simply had a sad story to tell.
In the case of the "tear jerker," the city waived all penalties and reduced the fine for each of the person's citations to $25.
"I think the reason why the car is not under [the cited's] name is because she got suckered and someone ripped her off," Luong wrote of the same case.
In another case, a man who frequently attends city council meetings brought his case directly to the council. Michael Carreon said he had never even heard of the Gold Card Desk, but when he complained to the council, the city rushed to clear his ticket.
"It's serious because this has been referred to a collection agency," wrote Ana Cubas, Councilman Jose Huizar's Chief of Staff, in an exchange with then LADOT general manager Rita Robinson. "As I explained to you over the phone a few months ago, Mr. Carreon often comes to Council Chambers to call out Council offices for not assisting him."
In an e-mail, Wayne Garcia with LADOT noted that Carreon did not follow procedure but decided to dismiss the tickets anyway.
Some of those who benefited from the Gold Card Desk did have some political connections. Baydsar Thomasian, senior field representative for Assemblyman Kevin de Leon, managed to get her late fees canceled. Her case was labeled a "high priority." Thomasian was formerly a field representative for Council Member Eric Garcetti.
[Update, 5:35 p.m.: The voicemail greeting at the Gold Card Desk states that the service has been discontinued. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa earlier today directed LADOT to immediately close the desk. "Every member of the public deserves equal treatment and even the appearance of preferential treatment is unacceptable," he said in a letter to the department's interim general manager.]
Additional reporting by Rocio Zamora and Miguel Contreras.