From chauffeurs to charities to parties, the five-member board hands out money from its discretionary accounts with little oversight.

By Garrett Therolf

March 10, 2010 | 5:40 p.m.

As Los Angeles County supervisors prepare to carve deeply into everything from public safety to social services, they also are spending millions in taxpayer dollars to burnish their public images, pay for chauffeurs, hold parties for friends and lobbyists and support pet projects.

Each supervisor receives $3.4 million a year to spend as he or she sees fit, without any public vote or scrutiny.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, for example, has spent more than $200,000 to support his new website along with Facebook and Twitter accounts, according to interviews and a Times review of documents obtained through the state Public Records Act.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas used $25,000 to buy a place in Who’s Who in Black Los Angeles.

And Supervisors Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Ridley-Thomas used some of their money to pay for cars and chauffeurs. Knabe’s armed driver makes $90,000 annually.

The supervisors don’t spend all they get and are sitting on a large sum. As of November, the balance in the five supervisors’ office accounts totaled $27 million, enough to cover the salaries of 216 social workers for a year.

In addition to their discretionary office accounts, supervisors have tapped millions more for what the county calls capital improvements, including a media center, largely for their use, at the county Hall of Administration, records and interviews show.

Although the office money is a small part of the county’s $23-billion budget, it allows supervisors to spend more lavishly — and with less accountability — than others in the bureaucracy they oversee.

They use it to cover staff salaries, expenses, travel, special programs and donations to outside groups. Most goes to staff salaries, and some to projects that appear to be good, popular causes.

Yaroslavsky donated $12 million for a library and Supervisor Gloria Molina donated $7 million to build a culture and arts center. Antonovich has given to youth soccer groups.

Other jurisdictions have frozen or trimmed discretionary accounts. Los Angeles city leaders, for instance, recently ceded $12 million in discretionary dollars to the city’s ailing general fund. Surrounding counties also require public discussion of discretionary spending on outside groups, as well as detailed accounting and a vote.

“Otherwise, the belief is that it would be an illegal gift of public money,” said Orange County spokesman David Wert.

Los Angeles County supervisors, however, spend behind the scenes.

Molina, for instance, has given $200,000 to the Sheriff’s Department over the last 28 months, as well as small amounts to various community groups and causes. But like Antonovich and Yaroslavsky, she declined repeated requests to discuss the allocations. (Yaroslavsky made an aide available for limited questions about his website.)

Ridley-Thomas and an aide to Knabe said recipients are thoroughly screened and serve causes important to constituents.

Patrick Ogawa, who works for the Board of Supervisors’ executive office, denied The Times’ request for documentation on the subject, saying compiling it would be too arduous.

At Ridley-Thomas’ request, however, Ogawa agreed to supply documents for the supervisor’s district. More than six weeks later, he has released nothing. The Times was able to obtain only the names of recipients and the amounts they received from July 2007 to November 2009, with nothing to explain the expenditures.

According to the records, Los Angeles County leaders gave a total of $4.8 million to outside groups in the last 28 months — sometimes boosting their public profiles or benefiting people to whom supervisors had personal or political ties.

Antonovich’s name is emblazoned on the schedules of the soccer leagues he supports, and Knabe is listed as a benefactor in many nonprofit newsletters.

Ridley-Thomas has supported charities whose mission is to get voters to the polls. The supervisor contributed $1,000 to the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and $2,500 to Acorn, two groups with major voter registration drives targeting Latinos and low-income people, respectively.

The supervisor also has donated to friends and political allies.

Ridley-Thomas gave $25,000 last year to throw a reception for a for-profit exhibit on the African American experience organized by TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, a longtime friend.

He also donated $25,000 last year to the Diva Foundation, whose mission is to support groups that conduct AIDS research, education and support. Its president, Tony-nominated Sheryl Lee Ralph, emceed his 2008 campaign kickoff.

The charity holds one main event each year, a concert in Beverly Hills, outside Ridley-Thomas’ South Los Angeles district.

“Given the impact of AIDS and its unproportionate impact on the African American community, we have to work very hard on this issue,” the supervisor said. “This was a creative venue where that message was delivered.”

Ridley-Thomas said his personal relationship with Ralph, who originated the role of Deena in Broadway’s “Dreamgirls,” played no role in his donation. “I know some of the recipients very well. The vast majority, I do not,” he said.

Ridley-Thomas declined to describe his vetting process for such groups, referring the question to county attorneys, who did not respond.

In the case of the Diva Foundation, a thorough vetting would have been difficult because it had no audited financial statement — often a key requirement for large donors. The organization claimed on its tax return that it had one.

“Oops, we didn’t intend to mark that we had an audited financial statement,” said Paul Papile, the foundation’s treasurer when asked for a copy.

Ridley-Thomas came under fire late last year when plans surfaced to use $707,000 in his discretionary account to renovate his eighth-floor office. Those plans now are on hold.

Public records show that Los Angeles County supervisors used to vote on donations to outside groups until the 1990s, when the contributions dropped off the public meeting agendas apparently without explanation.

In recent weeks, the county’s chief executive ordered each department to find ways to reduce their budgets by 9%.

“Very soon this room is going to be filled with people who may potentially lose their jobs because we’re not going to have the funds in our budget to sustain the jobs,” Molina said at last week’s regular meeting.

One area of county government is still growing: the media apparatus.

“With newspapers cutting so deeply, we can’t rely on places like The Times to get the story out anymore,” said Joel Bellman, a spokesman for Yaroslavsky.

Yaroslavsky, who is running for reelection this year without a campaign website, has used his discretionary account to hire three staffers to launch his online projects.

The staffers write articles about Yaroslavsky’s initiatives and policy positions, and upload photographs chronicling his life and career, including a shot of Yaroslavsky chatting with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion in 1981.

In its first four months, Yaroslavsky’s new site had 19,000 unique visitors.

The daily tally appears to be half what it was before the makeover. Yaroslavsky deputy Joel Sappell said the drop-off is due to a change in the way visitors are counted. As of Wednesday afternoon, Yaroslavsky had 138 fans on Facebook and 70 followers on Twitter. Sappell, a former Times editor who heads the effort and other special projects, earns a salary of $142,000, plus benefits.

He recently got a 5.5% raise.

Meanwhile, department heads’ salaries are frozen.

To read entire story, click here.