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Is It Boris or Is It Memorex? 

Wednesday, Sep 2 1998
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The leader is out of the public eye for weeks on end. His attention span is famously short; his critics claim that details of public policy elude him. His aides say his drinking, while a matter of public record, is now a thing of the past. His speeches are garbled and strange. His key ministers, an odd amalgam of young, inexperienced public servants, and business types impatient with the workings of democracy, come and go in bewildering succession.

Not long ago, it was he who initiated key constitutional changes. Now that the debate over the new constitutional order has come to a boil, however, he is less and less involved in the clash over the future shape of government. Meanwhile, the real government appears to be a behind-the-scenes band of wealthy CEOs who fund key special projects and who hold veto power over the reshaping of the polity.

Increasingly, both the leader and his government are alleged to be irrelevant to his fragmenting realm. Ethnic upheaval is a constant concern. He fears, more than anything else, that the whole vast entity he was elected to govern may break apart on his watch. Distant regions speak darkly of autarky and grimly threaten secession.

Is this Boris Yeltsin, shoring the fragments of Russia against his ruins? Well, sure - but it's also Richard Riordan, our intermittently visible and not always comprehensible mayor, who has given novices like new chief of staff Lesa Slaughter (his Kiriyenko) and business sharpies like Ted Stein (one of his Oligarchs) the run of City Hall. It is Riordan who set the city-charter revision process in motion with an initiative funded by the local Oligarchs, who now, banded together as Los Angeles Business Advisers, seem to have brushed him rudely aside as they fight to shape the new governing document. It is Riordan who flails against the threats of the secessionists from the Valley (his Chechnya). Above all, it is Riordan, like Yeltsin, who has created a void at the center that just makes secession seem that much more plausible an option.

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The president's at his summer dacha? The mayor's in Sun Valley? So who needs them?

Next week: Tales of the Oligarchs - Is Boris Berezovsky really Eli Broad's love child?-Harold Meyerson

What's in a Zero?

Students in L.A. schools have many excuses for failing math. But what's the excuse of one of the nation's great newspapers?

In its coverage of the firing of the school district's chief auditor, the Los Angeles Times quoted recently ousted Wajeeh Ersheid as saying he could have saved the district $30 million to $50 million a year with a larger and more independent auditing staff.

But the figure Ersheid quoted to reporters was $300 million to $500 million. While that amount may be hard to believe, it does more or less scan, since a subsequent Times article, for example, accepted that $25 million of textbook funds alone may be wasted each year. And elsewhere, the Times quoted Ersheid as saying that as much as 20 percent of every dollar in LAUSD's $6.3 billion budget is embezzled or wasted. By that standard, estimated losses could approach a whopping $1.26 billion.

District officials call that figure "outlandish and absurd."

Whatever the exact figure, Ersheid, who lost his job for reasons unrelated to technical competence, can hardly be discounted as a mere alarmist. He came to the job with a 30-year corporate track record, and after six months with the school district, chief financial officer Henry Jones credited Ersheid with having "tremendously improved the overall work product of the Internal Audit branch in spite of existing limitations and obstacles."

But Ersheid's warnings of fiscal hemorrhaging got scant attention. Allegations - some documented - of Ersheid's racial insensitivity took center stage at the hearing where the board unanimously voted him out.

Instead of immediately replacing him, school-district business czar Dave Koch announced that outside accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick will take the interim helm of the Internal Audits branch. Peat Marwick already has $319,000 in contracts with the district, which Koch calls a "vested" rather than a conflicted of interest.

Critics want to know if anybody is awake in LAUSD management, noting that when an auditor sounds the alarm about losses even halfway near the billion-dollar mark, a blue-ribbon committee might be more in order.

"It may well be there is waste of enormous proportions," says L.A. Deputy Controller Tim Lynch, who sits on a committee overseeing local school-bond spending. "I don't dismiss it lightly." Lynch has joined others in calling for an independent inspector general.-Stuart Timmons

Enhanced Heros

The summer's hero is enhanced. St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire, who is fast approaching Roger Maris' seasonal mark of 61 homers, has admitted to using androstenedione. An over-the-counter steroidlike hormone that builds muscle mass, androstenedione is perfectly legal, and not on Major League Baseball's list of banned substances, but already critics are complaining that McGwire's homeric performance is tarnished.

But what about the Babe? Truth be told, the greatest hitter of all time was on illegal substances for almost the entire duration of his career as a Yankee (1920-1934). The substances in question were scotch, rye and beer, which were outlawed under the terms of Prohibition, and which, by all accounts, Ruth consumed by the trough.-Harold Meyerson

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