By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Herewith a local conundrum: Why has no Los Angeles politician been arrested, sentenced and jailed for corruption for almost 60 years? Is it because, ever since the 1937 Frank Shaw scandals that dumped a mayor, a police chief and, ultimately, most of a City Council, they've all been so clean and respectable?
Or is it, as I increasingly suspect, that there's a kind of permanent, free-floating fix in someplace - a gentleperson's agreement in the spirit of "There but for the Grace of God Go We"? A collective awareness that all officeholders may now and then stumble, so let us therefore spare any undue impact for those who fall?
Such thoughts are occasioned by the unfolding case of Councilman Richard Alatorre, who admitted in a custody hearing last week to "borrowing" $12,000 from that slippery, members-only Eastside entity known as TELACU. This money paid for rebuilding the roof of his new Eagle Rock house. TELACU, the L.A. Times reported, was at that time in the process of negotiating a big contract with the city for a shopping center. TELACU got its contract.
No terms were set for the loan. Alatorre reportedly testified that he still owes on most of it. He is, happily, a very close and old friend of TELACU kingpin David Lizzaraga, for whom he has done favors beyond counting.
There are cities in which the word bribe might be used to describe that roofing transaction. In Los Angeles, the consensus seems to be: Hey, it's just another deal; wait and see where it goes. If nothing happens, we forget.
Actually, this may even be a California way of doing things, a state exceptionalism that's developed since the 1970s in the Legislature, too. Assembly members or senators on the verge of getting caught with their hands in the jar seem to get a choice: resign or face prosecution. Mostly, they resign. Only the most arrogant hard cases who have not stepped down - like Senators Paul Carpenter, Alan Robbins and Joe Montoya - end up facing the judicial music.
This is not the way it usually goes in Chicago, Philadelphia or New York. Where dirty politicians sometimes do go to jail. Where hundreds of millions of public dollars usually can't vanish without a trace, the way they did at the MTA, without someone convening a grand jury and searching out the perps. Where a contractor can't furtively shrink the walls of a subway tunnel without at least someone getting arrested.
But in today's Los Angeles, there is a practice that effectively condones the most obvious corruption under the presumption that this is just the way things go. It's a double tradition, actually, that comes complete with a very deep cognitive dissonance. It goes: "We have a much cleaner government here." And: "What can you expect from the scum we elect?"
Like many other local perceptions, this one reactively combines an ideal and a reality. The reaction simmers until the public finally gets a chance to even the score with such blunt instruments as the term limit. Which was, when you think of it, a kind of bill of attainder passed against California politicians in general. Of course, the restriction to a maximum eight years of office may just make bad officials hustle quicker.
As in the Senate and Assembly, we've also seen some sudden City Council midterm resignations by people whom the panel was better off without. But what criminal prosecutions have there been? For misdemeanor drug use in the case of Mike Hernandez and for drunk driving in the case of then-Councilman Art Snyder. Tiny little stuff. If Alan Robbins, who did some serious time for selling his vote in Sacramento, had only thought to run for a council seat 12 years ago, he'd probably still be representing the 3rd District.
Things can't have got so bad in this city without the connivance of some council members. Nor without the acquiescence of the majority who ignore the public interest when they vote for something - like putting Ted Stein on the Harbor Commission, or approving those dubious TELACU or Cordoba Corp. contracts - that is certain to cause a hell of a mess someday. Without, however, any of them being held accountable.
Occasional federal prosecution (a state prosecution? What state?) of council members might just constrain the behavior of the others. It would at least help them recall that they'd publicly voted for, maybe even spoken in favor of or seconded, some action that put a colleague in handcuffs. And just maybe they'd vote no the next time.
If you're a politician, the bust of a fellow pol reminds you that the world is round. If you're a voter, it saves you the trouble of voting someone out of office. If you are a federal attorney, it could make your reputation. Of course, that's the problem: It can only do that where such prosecutions are encouraged - something that does not seem to be the case here.
In a town that allegedly hates its City Council more than smog, there's a surprising public aversion to doing more than complaining about council-member wrongdoing. Note the ongoing federal-income-tax investigation of Alatorre, for instance. Alatorre's defenders complain that the Times is out to get Alatorre just because it has reported on the investigation. But if there's been commentary noting that the rascal looks like he's finally getting what's coming to him, I haven't seen it in print.