DWP going under the microscope at last

Two months after the Los Angeles Times reported the utility couldn't account for $40 million in ratepayer funds, commissioners finally ask the city controller to look into the matter.

 Brian D'Arcy

One of the remarkable things about Tuesday's DWP commission meeting was that no one ever mentioned the elephant in the room. That would be Brian D'Arcy, the IBEW's business manager, pictured in May, a defender of the mysterious nonprofits, and one of the city's political heavyweights. (Jay L. Clendeni / Los Angeles Times / May 30, 2013)

Any time you're dealing with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, whether you're trying to understand your bill or figure out how the place is run, it can be a bit of an Alice in Wonderland experience.

Take Tuesday, for instance.

That was the day we were finally supposed to hear what happened to roughly $40 million in ratepayer money that was given to two mysterious nonprofits over the last 10 years. As my colleague Jack Dolan reported two months ago, it isn't clear what the Joint Safety Institute and Joint Training Institute have done with that money, let alone why they exist. The utility and the employee union, which jointly operate the nonprofits, could offer only sketchy information about their vague mission to improve relations between management and labor and not much more about their actual activities.

So right there, we're already halfway down a rabbit hole. What do you mean you can't explain how $40 million was spent?

Reasonable people would demand an immediate accounting. But the new DWP commission appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti got off to a slow start in its handling of the matter.

Rather than call in City Controller Ron Galperin to audit the nonprofits, as he was raring to do, the commission gave the nonprofits one full month to produce an accounting of their activities. And the DWP, despite being jointly in charge of the nonprofits, let Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers decide who would do the audit.

Here's a surprise: The union selected the firm that does taxes for the two nonprofits.

Conflict of interest?

Not if you stand on your head.

So there we were Tuesday at the DWP commission hearing when the big moment arrived, and commission Chairman Mel Levine asked DWP General Manager Ron Nichols how the audit was coming along.

"My understanding is that the audit is underway," Nichols said.

His "understanding?" OK, I calmed myself and let it go. But Nichols went on to add that the audit "is not complete," saying "there's a lot to get done," and "there's not a major staff."

Yeah, but two months after the story broke, and one month after the audit was ordered, is any part of it done?

Apparently not, and Nichols didn't seem to know how much longer it might take.

I was reminded of a bit by a comedian who's waiting for the power to be turned on at his house, and the utility can't tell him when that will be. Someone has to flip a switch, he's told when he finally gets hold of a live person on the phone, but it's not clear when they'll get around to it.

Exasperated, he asks, "Can I come down there and flip the switch?"

I expected one or more of the commissioners to flip a switch and ask Nichols why it took a Times story to dig up questions about two nonprofits he helps oversee. He attends the meetings of the nonprofits, for crying out loud. Is there any reason he couldn't produce at least some of the records in half a day or less?

But instead of asking Nichols tough questions, the commissioners thanked him.

For what?

For his efforts to get information he seems unable to get.


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