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L.A.’s Incoming Controller Kenneth Mejia Vows to Take on Cronyism at City Hall. Will It Let Him?

NOW IN CONTROL - Since 2018, Los Angeles’ disgraced political establishment has endured five separate corruption scandals implicating seven councilmembers, the city attorney and the mayor

In Kenneth Mejia, the city’s insurgent left flank has installed one of its own as city controller, a powerful independent watchdog who can audit the finances of city departments and programs at any time and can even audit the performance of those departments and programs. While the controller’s office cannot force elected officials to act on its audits, it does have the power of subpoena.


This article was produced by the nonprofit journalism publication Capital & Main. It is co-published here with permission.


Mejia explains that he ran to disrupt the cronyism that defines city hall. “Our entire campaign is about challenging the status quo,” he says. “We need something new.” (Los Angeles votes are still being counted, but Councilmember Paul Koretz has acknowledged he lost to Mejia.)

But Mejia is taking over an office that is fundamentally handicapped, according to past controllers and controller employees, because it relies for its funding on the council and the mayor, the very people it’s tasked with overseeing. 

Controllers who challenge the status quo risk losing their budgets or jeopardizing their political careers by alienating powerful donors and lobbying groups.

“People talk about how the cops close ranks to protect a bad apple,” says former L.A. City Controller Laura Chick. “Politicians do that better and more.”

Controllers have to keep “a low center of gravity,” says Rick Tuttle, who preceded Chick in the office. “There’s always a chance they come for you at budget time.”

Mejia, 32, was raised by Filipino immigrants in Sylmar and has never held elected office. Ultimately, the controller’s only weapon is publicity, he says. 

“Those more traditional city councilmembers might push back,” he says. “But we’re good at outreach, we’re good at communicating. If it’s shown that they’re trying to block accountability and transparency, it’s not going to go well for them, for their political careers.”

Meanwhile, the office he inherits is badly underfunded, with roughly one auditor for every two city departments. 

Nineteen auditors are currently employed in the controller’s office, the same number as in 2010 following the great recession. The controller’s current auditing budget is 19.7% lower than it was in 2010, even though the city budget has grown by nearly 75% since then.
 
Wendy Greuel, controller from 2009 to 2013, says she had even fewer auditors than the budget authorized. 

“In the audit function, I think I had like 12 people, max,” she says. “That was not enough for a city with a $7 billion or $8 billion budget.

“It’s not a bad idea to look at the controller’s budget and see how you buffer it from political maneuvering,” Greuel adds.

Throughout the 2010s, just one investigator was assigned to the office’s Fraud, Waste and Abuse unit, and in a 2020 budget motion to add an investigator to the unit, the city administrative officer wrote to the council of a “growing backlog of cases requiring investigation.”

A 2019 controller’s report on the unit said it “launches proactive investigations.” But according to a former city employee familiar with the controller’s office operations, the lone FWA investigator just ran a phone line. 

“It’s obvious you can’t do anything with one person who’s answering phones all day,” they said, requesting anonymity to protect their current employment.

Chelsea Lucktenberg, a spokesperson for outgoing Controller Ron Galperin, says four employees are assigned to the unit, but did not answer multiple requests to specify their titles. “Over the last nine and a half years, our Fraud, Waste and Abuse unit has investigated and closed more than 2,000 cases and recovered millions in misspent City funds,” she wrote in an email.

In 2020, one of Galperin’s highest-ranking employees, Principal Deputy Controller Vijay Singhal, released an audit without permission: a reportalleging a $300 million surplus in a special fund in the Department of Building and Safety that the department was supposed to pay back to the city’s general fund. In 2019, the surplus amounted to more than 200% of the department’s spending, Singhal wrote, whereas a reasonable reserve would be around 20% of department spending. Singhal used the city seal and signed off as the “City’s Disruptive Innovation Team.”

Galperin’s office fired Singhal and has never released an audit of the surplus. In the last three city budgets, however, the controller’s office has provided an auditor to help the Building and Safety Department “strengthen internal controls.” The positions are paid for with money from the permit fund Singhal blew the whistle on.

“Singhal’s work documented that multiple city departments were sequestering millions in city funds without putting them to use to benefit the public,” the former city employee familiar with controller’s office operations says. “It got little attention.” 

Singhal is suing the city of L.A. for “whistle blower retaliation,” racial discrimination and wrongful termination. Singhal reported the surplus to “Galperin, [Chief Deputy Controller Georgia] Mattera and others in prior years (including 2016 and 2017), but no remedial action was taken,” according to Singhal’s complaint.

Controller spokesperson Chelsea Lucktenberg declined to comment on Singhal as well as the surplus. Singhal did not answer requests for comment. 

*   *   *

Kenneth Mejia says he can work without money. After all, his campaign has already produced reports that made headlines in the city — and mostly for the price of burritos for his volunteer staff. 

In 2022, Mejia released a database of apartments subject to affordable housing covenants and heatmaps of where the police department issues parking tickets and conducts pedestrian and traffic stops (the latter map is sortable by race). In August, Mejia released the only map in the city of 41.18 enforcement zones where it’s illegal to sit, lie, sleep or store belongings. 

“I picture myself working with our team and just saying, all right, give me the data and I’ll do it,” Mejia says. “I’ll bust out these calculations and graphs and formulas. I can do it in like two seconds.”

Mejia’s campaign emerged directly from the leftist organizing currently challenging neoliberal policy in the city, especially around police budgets and sweeps of homeless encampments. 

Before running for controller, Mejia was an organizer with the Los Angeles Tenants Union, while his campaign manager, Jane Nguyen, co-founded the mutual aid group Ktown for All. Both have been prominent in leftist organizing spaces for years — Mejia was a fixture at Black Lives Matter rallies and tenant union actions, often backing up chants with a snare drum — and they have continued to agitate while campaigning. Nguyen encouraged supporters to come to City Hall when the council voted to expand restrictions on sleeping in front of schools and day cares on Aug. 9. At the meeting, an unhoused woman tried to approach then Councilmember Nury Martinez and was tasered by council police, who flooded the chamber.
  
Mejia stood in the raucous pews, separated by a line of more than 30 police officers from the councilmembers he will serve with as controller starting in December. The councilmembers filed slowly out of the room before the LAPD declared an unlawful assembly. After the meeting, Councilmember Paul Koretz accused Mejia of standing “in solidarity with those who commit crimes and attack law enforcement.”

Rick Cole, former deputy mayor of budget and innovation to Eric Garcetti and a prominent Mejia supporter, says Mejia will face opposition “from before he puts his hand up and takes the oath.”

But the movement behind Mejia will protect him from retaliation, Cole argues. “The typical controller’s campaign is your brother in law, your law partner and two people who get paid through the nose to do direct mail,” he says. “His campaign has 1,200 volunteers. He has the potential to transform the paradigm.”

“An ideological leftist” like Mejia in the controller’s office would break the culture of unanimous consent that has structured L.A. politics for decades, says Scott Frazier, co-host of “LA Podcast,” which analyzes the City Council’s actions. It would also prove that leftists can win citywide, not just in council races. 

“There is a culture in City Hall of everybody minding their own business,” Frazier says. “If they come into contact with something bad, there’s a fear that there will be retaliation against me, that my own proposed work in City Hall is not going to go anywhere.”

For all of L.A.’s corruption scandals, none were revealed by local investigations, Frazier points out. Angelenos can feel like the FBI is watching local politicians more closely than the controller or the City Council’s Ethics Commission.
 

As controller in the 2000s, Laura Chick tried to be that local watchdog, and it may have ended her political career, she says. 

Chick declared she was going to slay the sacred cows of City Hall and released more than 170 audits in two terms. (Departing Controller Galperin has released 74 audits in two terms.) 

The first sacred cow in City Hall is councilmembers’ power to approve or kill developments in their own district, Chick says, a power that structures L.A. politics and fuels corruption. 

Former councilmember Jose Huizar has pleaded not guilty to racketeering, bribery and other charges for allegedly accepting bribes from developers in exchange for approving their developments and (in one building) removing affordable housing requirements. Former Councilmember Mitchell Englander was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into the “pay-to-play” scandal. 

“You don’t ask questions about another elected official,” says Laura Chick. “When I was a city councilmember, I was called over by the council president and the head of the planning committee, and they said, ‘Don’t you know you don’t say anything negative about your colleagues?’”

In 2008, Chick released an audit revealing that more than 7,000 rape test kits had never been processed by the Los Angeles Police Department. “That’s another sacred cow,” Chick says of the LAPD. “A big one.”

Chick later battled City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo over an audit of his office’s workers’ compensation program. Delgadillo challenged a subpoena and the City Council questioned her in chambers, demanding she “stand down.” 

Chick’s efforts to be a strong controller would likely have undermined her ability to fundraise for an electoral campaign, she says. In her second term, she decided running for future office was incompatible with being an independent controller.
 

Mejia is already thinking about which sacred cow to go after first — perhaps the LAPD helicopter fleet.

 
One of her most prominent audits exposed how city commissioners were donating to political candidates. Though Chick herself had received $22,000 in donations from commissioners as a councilmember, she ran the audit anyway. 

In her second term, Chick would sit down at political functions and watch the “lobbyists and high-ranking city officials” seated around her get up and move to the other side of the room. She got used to it, she says.

Ironically, Chick says Mejia is “unfit” for office because his aggressive style will alienate him from the allies in government he needs.

Before he ran for office, Mejia tweeted that Joe Biden was a rapist, and was photographed at a rally holding a sign of Hillary Clinton behind bars. He later apologized to his supporters for the tweets, he says, and told a group of neighborhood councilmembers that the tweets don’t represent who he is. 

But Chick and Mejia have a lot in common: Mejia is already thinking about which sacred cow to go after first — perhaps the LAPD helicopter fleet.

“We have a larger helicopter fleet than some countries do,” he says. “If we’re paying $3.2 billion for this department, are the funds allocated really being used to address public safety?” 

Mejia knows that asking hard questions in Los Angeles’ City Hall is a recipe for conflict. Asked how he’s preparing for battle, he laughs. 

“You know something I think will be really, really helpful?” he says. “By the end of this year, seven city councilmembers might be gone from the [15-member] City Council. So I don’t see much of a big issue. If anything, things are leaning our way.”

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main 

(Jack Ross is an LA based writer featured in CapitalandMain.com where this article was first published.)