Bill Boyarsky
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The story behind the Ridley-Thomas garage caper

The story behind the Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ garage-home-office controversy is one familiar to millions---a beef over home remodeling.

bill-300.jpgFor those who have not been following the Los Angeles Times investigation into the garage caper, here’s a summary: Last month, reporters Jack Leonard and Paul Pringle reported that the county installed a home security system for the garage, which was being turned into an office. The reporters portrayed the project as a boondoggle, with a wall torn down for the installation of the wiring, which also required a trench dug adjacent to the garage. This work, they implied, might not have been needed. They also maintain the county has only grudgingly and slowly given them information and Ridley-Thomas has refused to talk to them.

Friday, Nancy Sullivan, Times vice president for communications called to say that four garage walls, not one, were involved in the job.

Overcoming these obstacles, the reporters found out that a contractor charged the county $6,239 for the project. Then Ridley-Thomas reimbursed the county $3,759 for an air conditioner, refrigerator and a flat screen television installed at the same time.

Beyond that, the story of the wall, or walls I should say, becomes muddy, like neighbors telling of remodeling their kitchen.

Ridley-Thomas told me that when he notified county officials he intended to move his home office, including his county computer, into the garage, they said they would have to revamp his county-supplied home security system. In addition, they said they, themselves, would have to move his county computer, with its high-speed Internet connection, into the new office. They had to do this, they said, to protect the county computer system from hackers.

Besides linking up with the Internet, the high-speed connection reaches the sheriff’s office and other security agencies, Ridley-Thomas said. Each task requires wiring. In addition, the alarm system needs a wire to draw power from the home supply. So there must be wiring for a few purposes—high-speed Internet connection, law enforcement notification for emergencies and power for the computer and the security alarm system, Ridley-Thomas explained.

County employees and the contractors looked at the garage and said they wouldn’t be able to install so much wiring behind the walls without ripping them out. Since the garage was 30 years old, they said they couldn’t find replacements for the old wooden walls. Let’s hang dry wall over the wiring and paint it, they said. They preferred that solution to hanging the wires on outside of the old wall and covering them with molding. Fine, replied Ridley-Thomas.

Reporters Leonard and Pringle quoted a number of home security experts who said there was no need to rip out the wall to install wiring for the security system. “Ripping the walls out? That’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Nigel Smithers, Southern California general for Absolute Security Alarms. Ridley-Thomas is angry about the coverage and called me at home, hoping I would look into it. He said it was always clear that he would pay for the air conditioner, television and refrigerator. “This was above board, there was no attempt to hide anything, it was completely appropriate and legitimate,” he said.

The real dispute is over the amount of wiring needed and whether the wall should have been replaced. Was so much wiring required that the contractors had to rip down the wall? Would a cord from Home Depot sufficed? Was taxpayer money wasted? In that situation, if a contractor told me this about my home office, I might call in a contractor for a second opinion. But Ridley-Thomas, required to use the county for the job, didn’t have that option.

As a final note, I asked the Times for comment and received this e mail from Times Vice President Sullivan:

“The Times’ reporting on the installation of a taxpayer-funded security system at the home of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has been precise and fair. Although Ridley-Thomas declined repeated requests for comment and information, the articles have reflected his side of the story as fully as possible, based on information from other county officials and Ridley-Thomas’ own statements to other media. The Times has consistently reported that Ridley-Thomas reimbursed the county for part of the cost of the project. No factual error in our reporting has been brought to our attention. We continue to seek a complete accounting of taxpayer expenditures on the project and will report on the controversy as new information becomes available.”

I replied, “Thank you for your statement, which I will include in my column for LA Observed...

“But I'm not satisfied with it and I don't think readers would be either. The Times is the foremost public-private institution in our community. Its reporters and editors should answer questions from the public and other journalists about their news gathering--allowing, of course, for the need to protect confidential sources. With its great influence, the paper and its journalists should be accountable to its many readers. Saying merely that the reporting has been precise and fair does not meet this standard…”

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