'Gold card desk' brouhaha: Mayor order investigation after audit blasts special treatment for dismissing parking tickets

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LAPD Traffic Stop on Woodman Ave. in Arleta CA.

The city Department of Transportation has a special "gold card desk" for the mayor and City Council members to call about reviewing parking tickets on behalf of constituents, according to an audit released today by City Controller Wendy Greuel.

In releasing the audit, Greuel – a candidate for mayor – denied having any knowledge of the service when she served on the City Council, but documents and e-mails obtained by a local wire service show that she knew about the "gold card desk" in 2006, and one of her own staffers used it.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called today for an investigation of the Department of Transportation and ordered the immediate end to the controversial practice. Villaraigosa called for the probe in a letter sent today to DOT Interim General Manager Amir Sedadi, who responded saying he was complying.

"Various issues over the past few weeks point to glaring weaknesses at LADOT,'' the mayor wrote. ''We are well beyond the point of isolated incidents or a coincidence of events.''

Greuel declined to comment about her previous knowledge of the service. Chief Deputy Controller Claire Bartels responded by saying, "The controller believes there should no longer be a gold card desk ... This lack of transparency is simply not acceptable."

According to the audit of the department's parking-citation process, about 1,000 tickets sent to the desk over a two-year period were excused. About 90 percent of those had no paper trail, according to Greuel, who said the "gold card" dates back 20 years.

The physical card is the size of a credit card with the words "Gold Card" over the downtown skyline and a phone number to call, according to a scanned copy of the card obtained by a local wire service.

"The Parking Violations Bureau recognizes that you may have an urgent need to resolve any parking citation matter which requires special attention," the back of the card reads. By calling the number, "You will be immediately connected to our Gold Card Specialist," it says.

"It shouldn't be that you know someone in a council office or any elected office that gets you where you need to be," Greuel said. "Everyone in the city wants to be treated fairly. They should feel they're going to get the same service no matter who they call."

Greuel served on the City Council from 2002-2009 and chaired the council's Transportation Committee. Although she denied having any knowledge of the gold card desk, a Nov. 6, 2006, report addressed to Greuel discusses the desk and "the outreach program for high-level city officials, high-profile complaints and public record requests."

Meanwhile, emails obtained by a local wire service show that a Greuel staff member used the gold card desk in June 2006.

Robert Andalon, chief management analyst with the LADOT, said the program was created for constituents who had extenuating circumstances related to their tickets, such as medical emergencies.

"The gold card desk is a misnomer," Andalon said. "It's really the ombudsman services."

LADOT Interim General Manager Amir Sedadi said he understood the perception of the existence of the cards was not good and planned to eliminate the program.

"We want a fair process for the public. This isn't a way for the elected officials to have an upper hand, I assure you," Sedadi said. "We have a transparent process and we will continue to have a transparent process."

Mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said the mayor's constituent services staff use the card the same way they would if residents or business owners call asking for help with tree-trimming, broken sidewalks or graffiti removal.

"If you felt you received a ticket in error or someone graffiti'd your house, well make sure you get help. It's a way to help, a way to break through the general process," Hamilton said.

"We do have that card, but we do not use it. We never have," said Tony Perez, spokesman for City Councilman Ed Reyes, who said the card is not shared with Reyes' field deputies who deal with the public.

"Our policy has always been we don't fix tickets. We work to show them the process of arguing the tickets," Perez said.

A spokeswoman for Councilman Tony Cardenas' office said his field deputies would give the phone number on the card to constituents who had trouble dealing with parking tickets, but never made calls on their behalf.

Data provided by the mayor's office showed that about 5,600 requests to appeal tickets had been made to the gold card desk since July 2008. Only 153, or 2.7 percent, came from the mayor's office. Another 417 came from city council offices. The vast majority of the requests were generated by LADOT itself or other sources, according to the data.

Andalon said the gold card desk is currently staffed by two people hired by Affiliated Computer Services, State and Local Solutions, a contractor hired by the city to process parking tickets. Andalon said the desk uses the same criteria for handling tickets sent to the desk as it does for all other ticket appeals.

The audit's other major finding was that the LADOT was unable to investigate more than 4,400 contested parking citations in a timely manner.

That is a tiny percentage of the nearly 5.7 million tickets issued over the two-year audit period, which generated about $260 million for the city's general fund, according to the department.

But Greuel said delays in processing appealed tickets caused the city to lose about $126,000 over an 18-month period starting in June 2008.

"We believe that in eight months, the city should be able to review those changes or questions that people have and believe that needs to change," Greuel said.

Sedadi defended his department, saying the delays in processing ticket appeals was due to staffing. He said during the time of Greuel's audit, LADOT had only one staffer assigned to reviewing appeals because of layoffs and sluggish city hiring procedures.

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