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Audit finds L.A. County supervisors' behind-the-scenes effort to control policy

February 26, 2010 |  1:06 pm

Bruce McClendonA long awaited audit released by Los Angeles County officials found that the Board of Supervisors often use behind-the-scenes levers to control the inner workings of the Regional Planning Department, whose decisions are key to hotly contested battles over development, environmental protections and code enforcement.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s planning deputy, Ben Saltsman, and Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s planning deputy, Paul Novak, fought vigorously behind the scenes during the development of a Green Building ordinance, issuing e-mails to department staffers that “could be interpreted as violating” county rules against supervisors’ directives outside the public meeting process, according to the report, which was obtained by The Times.

Supervisor Gloria Molina’s planning deputy, Nicole Englund, hand-picked department staffers to go to professional conferences in Las Vegas and San Francisco despite former Director Bruce McClendon’s claim that he told her that they were not qualified to go with all expenses paid and that their attendance would amount to a “junket." In addition, investigators determined that Englund had ordered the department to fund the trips with federal anti-poverty money despite program rules that “could lead to the conclusion that travel and training are ineligible expenses,” the report said.

And former Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke’s planning deputy, Mike Bohlke, pressured department staffers to increase their recommended cap for the number of wells eligible for drilling in the Inglewood oil fields before it reached the supervisors for a vote in public. When the staffers suggested more community input first, he wrote “Enough is Enough … !!!!!” in an e-mail to top department officials, the report said.

The audit was initiated after the firing of McClendon as regional planning director in January 2009. McClendon had received a positive job evaluation several months before, and said he was fired for blowing the whistle of the supervisors’ activities to Chief Executive William T. Fujioka and for enforcing rules against supervisor’s intrusions behind the scenes.

Though the report suggests that the supervisors play a hands-on role in the department, the majority of McClendon’s allegations were neither substantiated nor refuted. Auditors noted that “many of Mr. McClendon’s allegations involve one-on-one conversations over the phone or in person. There were no recordings of these conversations and therefore little or no evidence to support or refute his claims in these instances.”

The audit was carried out under the oversight of Auditor Controller Wendy Watanabe, who reports directly to the supervisors. Her investigators conducted initial interviews with McClendon before contracting out the investigation to Harvey M. Rose Associates to ensure impartiality. More details on the report will be published in Saturday's paper.

County officials initially declined to release the audit, but after extensive conversations with The Times, the report was released late Thursday.

--Garrett Therolf at the L.A. County Hall of Administration

Photo: McClendon. Barbara Davidson / L.A. Times