Monday, April 11, 2016

Garcetti GM Returns Misappropriated Funds

Question:  How does one buy a brand new Mazda Miata MX-5, have a combined household income north of $218,000 and circumvent qualifying for a City of Los Angeles "Very Low Income" spay/neuter voucher?

Answer:  Sleep with the General Manager.

The email admission last week by Brenda Barnette, Mayor Garcetti’s GM of LA Animal Services, to misappropriating a low-income spay/neuter voucher for her long-term, live-in girlfriend was no surprise. They were not entitled to it.

Nor was it a surprise that it took her a year and a half to do so.   City Hall insularly protects its own, and everyone from the Mayor, City Council, City Attorney, Garcetti’s five LAAS Commissioners and most disturbingly, City Controller Ron Galperin, knew but excluded it and so many other concerns in his evasively wasteful non-audit. 

What is a surprise, however, is that Barnette’s underling lied about it to City Councilmembers one day earlier.

“Has anyone ever been caught misusing these funds,” asked LA City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson who, along with his colleagues Committee Chair Paul Koretz and David Ryu, had the misappropriated voucher and related evidence in front of themselves. 

“No,” replied Dana Brown, Barnette’s Assistant GM, who knew better.

Without so much as a follow-up question, Harris-Dawson, Koretz and Ryu voted unanimously to make it even easier to get the voucher.  No proof required.  Just put your signature on an affidavit.

On the grand scale, this lie pales in comparison to others told by city officials about LA Animal Services, such as its falsifying 8,807 pet “adoptions” when they simply moved those animals from cages in one city-owned building to another.  More on that subject very soon.

As the Latin phrase goes falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus.  

If they lie about one thing, you can assume that they lie about everything. 

The program that Barnette and Chavez-Hutson knowingly abused has very clear rules that should be especially understood by Barnette, who so far has raked in more than $1 million in salary during her 5+ years in LA.  How could she not know the rules of a primary program she has overseen for that long?   Why did she not immediately rectify the situation when it was first brought to her attention?

LAAS has a variety of spay/neuter programs for which all city residents are eligible.   For those who are poor, there is a Very Low Income Program that provides the services for free.  It has just two requirements:

  1. The dog must belong to you.   There are other programs with which to help strays, but this is not it.
  2. You must have “a qualifying income” that considers just two factors: combined household income and the number of people living in the home, regardless of their relationship (or lack thereof) or their age or disabilities.
Barnette and Chavez-Hutson were excluded on both points.   The dog in question was a stray who “wandered into” their home in 2014.  And according to Barnette’s email (see first link in this article), and backed-up by real estate records, she and Chavez-Hutson, at the time that the voucher was issued, had “lived together for 2+ years.”  

Since Barnette’s 2014 income was $218,000, it alone (excluding Chavez-Hutson's income) was 650% higher than LAAS’s posted limit of $34,200 for a two-person household.

Barnette fallaciously suggested at various intervals that Chavez was eligible because of her age, disability, income or whether or not they are domestic partners. Each of these excuses is a red herring; utterly irrelevant.  They did not qualify but knowingly took the low income discounts regardless.  Last week, Barnette admitted its misuse was because the dog was a stray, and that she “donated” two-fold back to the city the misappropriated funds.

But even that wasn't the entire truth.

Chavez-Hutson’s use of her LADWP bill, which also affords her an undeserved low income discount (due to the same qualifying income thresholds) shows that the intent was to deceive the city that their combined household income was below the threshold.   Otherwise, why would she have provided the DWP bill to the shelter? Barnette had to have known that she was ineligible based on income as well because she was called by the shelter captain to explicitly approve the voucher when the desk clerks weren’t buying it. “We have lived together for 2+ years,” is what Barnette wrote just two months later, and the staffers knew it.

Keep this in mind if you think Chavez-Hutson was scraping by on pennies:  Just a few months earlier, she bought a newMazda Miata MX-5, and farted about it on Facebook.   

Three things matter now.   First, will City Council ask Brown, the Assistant GM, what she meant when she told its committee that nobody had ever been caught misusing the funds?  Second, exactly when did Barnette know the funds were misused compared to the date she made the “donation” back to the account?  She refuses to respond to my CPRA request for proof showing when, and whether, that donation was actually made.

And third, when will the city have a comprehensive external audit of LAAS in which the public is invited to participate?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Garcetti Commissioner: "(LA Animal Services is) a leaking rowboat"

A swarm of at least 125 protesters, including masked LA Animal Services employees, marched on a recent Sunday outside the residence of Mayor Eric Garcetti, demanding the termination of Brenda Barnette, his LAAS general manager, chanting "your job, your fault," regarding myriad false claims and mismanagement during her five-year tenure for which she was paid in excess of $1 million.   

Organized by humane activists Paul Darrigo and Michael Bell, the protest moved forward after their meeting with Garcetti's advisers a few days earlier resulted in no future meeting with the Mayor, and no commitment to a world-class shelter system with a new GM. "The Mayor is a busy guy," they were told.

But who else is responsible for the problems at LAAS other than Garcetti and Barnette?

Let's first look at the five LAAS Commissioners appointed by Garcetti to oversee LAAS and Barnette.

"LA Animal Services is a leaking rowboat," wrote Commissioner Roger Wolfson last August in response to concerns about, among other things, nearly 9,000 falsified adoptions and the misrepresentation of those statistics to potential donors and the media; fake impound numbers; the dubious relationship with Best Friends; and animals being bred and sold at places like a used appliance store and a tire repair business in L.A.  "No way to plug all the holes at once," Wolfson continued, "I'm doing my best."

But since Wolfson's August 28, 2014 email, none of those issues was ever agendized for the Commission meetings.  In fact, Wolfson successfully led the charge to limit public comments at its meetings.

That's unfortunate. Wolfson sorely needs that public input because he, like his colleague Larry Gross, has no prior humane experience.  In fact, Wolfson admits that prior to being nominated for the LAAS Commission by Garcetti, he didn't even know he was supposed to have his dogs licensed.  (While Wolfson claims to have paid for his dog licenses since then, the city ignored CPRA requests for documents proving that Wolfson paid for past years dog licenses and late fees, and the dates of those payments).   When a former Commissioner named Ruthanne Secunda, a wealthy talent agent, did the same while voting on dog licensing issues, she was shown the door.

Wolfson is a lawyer and television writer who has complained about the appointment taking up too much of his time, and Gross is a lawyer and a housing rights activist.

Similarly, David Zaft, is an environmental law attorney with no known humane background; hardly the chops needed to be Commission president.  In fact, his business resume makes no mention of the appointment after several years on the Commission.  

While struggling to grasp and prioritize issues has become the brand of Wolfson, Gross and Zaft, a more ominous problem exists with Commissioner Alana Yanez, who runs a program for her employer, the Humane Society of the United States, in Los Angeles.

But on her 8/29/14 financial disclosure form -- signed under penalty of perjury for her reappointment -- Yanez failed to disclose her employment with HSUS.  (See Item #3 on page 4).   In fact, Yanez checked Box #6 on that form which says "I had no reportable interests in real property, investments, income, gifts, or board positions associated with restricted sources during this reporting period."

Neither Yanez nor Garcetti's office can claim they didn't know about her conflict of interest.  The Ethics Commission warned about it in this letter from when she was originally appointed in 2012. Presumably they read it before reappointing her.  

Also at fault is L.A. City Council, which cannot plead ignorance either.  Its 9/16/14 agenda item says her financial disclosure statement is "pending," even though Yanez signed it 18 days earlier.  

City Council was warned about Yanez's conflict of interest that day, but - surprise - it fell on deaf ears and Yanez was never asked about it, or anything else.  Open the role, close the roll, tabulate the votes:  unanimously approved. 

Sometimes, Yanez does the reverse and discloses her employment, but not her Commissionership, such as in this 2012 Wall Street Journal article in which Barnette is also quoted on the plight of animals in Los Angeles, while they both failed to disclose their mutual efforts to reallocate spay/neuter funds for other purposes.   Yanez should, but often doesn't, recuse herself from Commission agenda items where HSUS has an interest in City of LA humane policy, like our well-intentioned, horribly executed spay/neuter law, elephant protection items and the like.

Once upon a time, Commissioners spoke up when Mayors and GMs made false claims about adoption, cruelty enforcement and euthanasia.  Marie Atake did that back in 2007, and was backed up by her colleague Archie Quincey and then-Councilmember Dennis Zine.  When then-Mayor Villaraigosa's henchman Jimmy Blackman told her to "be quiet or resign," she bravely walked and told her story to KABC.  

Right now, the only sitting LAAS Commissioner who belongs there is Jennifer Brent, Executive Director of The Jason Heigl Foundation, and who previously worked at Found Animals Foundation.

City Hall staffers, when faced with complaints, often ask (as Darrigo and Bell were asked by Garcetti's people) is anything working righta typical public sector tactic, instead of asking what can be done to fix what is wrong.  The answer is that LA Animal Services can work right, perhaps infinitely better, but only if everyone is engaged, experienced, above-board and not worried about retribution for speaking up.

Mayor Garcetti would be wise to make his first step the return to the Commission of Kathy Riordan, who was beloved by rescuers and LAAS staffers alike, when she served on it from 1999 to 2013.  He should nominate her without insisting on her first submitting a signed, but undated, resignation letter.  Garcetti should rise above the fact that her father, former Mayor Richard Riordan, didn't support him for the job.  His second step should be a comprehensive external audit and allow Barnette's employment to rest on its assessment of her claims.

After all, his own appointee said "it's a leaking rowboat."  

Monday, June 8, 2015

How Mayor Garcetti's animal shelter GM personally misappropriated low income discounts

When is $218,258.64 considered low income?

Brenda Barnette, the general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services, the city's shelter system, is paid this much to run the city's six shelters for Mayor Eric Garcetti.  But she, along with Pamela Chavez-Hutson, her long-term, live-in domestic partner also get low income discounts from the LA Department of Water & Power and - wait for it - LA Animal Services.

"We have lived together for 2+ years" and "are domestic partners for insurance" is how Barnette described their relationship in 1/9/15 and 2/10/15 emails.

Virtual real estate photos of Barnette's former home in Atwater Village, which sold in November, confirm that it was vacant during most of its 18 months on the market.  

According to Barnette's Facebook page, Barnette and Chavez-Hutson were living in Chavez-Hutson's Sylmar house last November when, she says, a small dog wandered into their living room overnight.

On November 7th, Chavez-Hutson took her Department of Water & Power bill, with its low income discount, and went to the East Valley Shelter (which is one of the shelters Barnette oversees) and demanded the higher value $70 spay/neuter voucher reserved for "very low income" households.  Chavez-Hutson declared that she is Barnette's domestic partner, and told the supervisor who was summoned, to call Barnette to confirm her eligibility for the "very low income" voucher.

When the supervisor and Chavez-Hutson emerged from an office a few minutes later, the clerk issued Chavez-Hutson this voucher from the "very low income" spay/neuter program.

But according to the LADWP's website, a two-person household can only get its low-income discount if the combined household income is under $31,460, which is "for the (program) participants' permanent, primary residence."  Not counting Chavez's income, Barnette's salary was already north of $218,000, or 694% higher than the low-income threshold. And Chavez-Hutson did not qualify for a senior or disabled discount, because it "is based solely on...income."

Since Barnette's house had long-since been vacant, and Barnette stated that she and Chavez-Hutson have "lived together for 2+ years," she had to have known that the LADWP discount was bogus, and could therefore not be used to qualify for the very low income spay/neuter discount.

The DWP further states that its low income discount is for those who "are experiencing difficulties paying their bills."  But according to Chavez-Hutson's Facebook page, just a few months earlier, she purchased a new Mazda Miata MX-5.

According to the LA Animal Services website, Chavez-Hutson didn't qualify for its discount either because the combined two-person household income must be less than $34,200, and that the person receiving the voucher "must be the dog's owner" and "cannot be used for feral cats or stray dogs."

1. Chavez-Hutson was not the dog's owner
2. The dog was a stray
3. Their household income didn't meet the "very low income" requirements.

Strike 1.  Strike 2.  Strike 3.

When Barnette's administrative assistant was contacted recently about a phantom, mirror-image situation, she cited city code 53.90 and stated that the dog must be turned over to the shelter "because he may have an owner looking for him."  To date, Barnette and Chavez-Hutson didn't turn over the dog to the shelter, and there is no proof that his photo was posted in the East Valley Shelter.

At the March meeting of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, Barnette (who was speaking that night) was asked by a panelist whether people who grossly inflate their household income to take advantage of low income discounts should be prosecuted, she said that those matters "should be referred to the City Attorney's office."

It has already been referred to City Controller Ron Galperin.

Galperin is rumored to be in "pre-audit" mode of LAAS for waste, fraud and abuse on a much grander scale.  If he examines Barnette's city cellular, office phone and home utility records, he may be able to determine why Barnette was a virtual no-show in her office from 2013-14, since Sylmar is a lot further away from downtown than is Atwater Village, and whether she was working & living out of Chavez-Hutson's home for most or all of that time. It sounds like one heck of a telecommute/no-show paycheck. (NOTE: Barnette didn't start regularly appearing in her downtown office again until the huge 2014 inferno across the street from it forced her to move back into City Hall, where it is a lot tougher to be a no-show raking in $218,258.64).

Barnette is paid handsomely to enforce the city's laws.  But she, and her domestic partner, must also live by them like everyone else, or pay the price for breaking them.

Coming soon:  How LAAS falsified at least 8,807 pet adoptions, and knowingly misused those inflated statistics to solicit millions of dollars in donations.