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Beats Chocolate 

The matter of Mr. Mesfin’s Mercedes

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
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No matter how they shake the box, the pieces just won’t fall together. At least not in any way that suggests that Tedjitou Dessalegn, a senior assistant to departed county children’s-services department head Pete Digre, actually colluded with the man who gave her $25,000 to buy a new luxury car, plus another $5,000 on the side. Even if the gentleman in question, one Wond Wossen Mesfin, had just won a $4 million contract with her department.

As Mick Jagger used to sing, you just can’t make the connection.

This is because there is a hole in county protocols big enough to drive a brand-new Mercedes E320 sedan through. As Ms. Dessalegn just did. Okay, so Mesfin only stood her down payment, but it was, after all, a very large down payment — enough by itself to buy a well-equipped, full-size Buick.

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Gratitude is a relative thing, and, come to think of it, we don’t know exactly what kind of relationship Ms. Dessalegn has with Mr. Mesfin. We just know that $30,000 is an awful lot of thanks for the lady who merely tells you — in the nicest possible voice — that Mr. Digre will see you now.

Of course, senior assistants usually do more than handle reception. As Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky put it in his motion on this very subject last week, "When an employee works in a management position or serves in a position where he or she has access to the department head or the Board of Supervisors, that person arguably has or may be perceived to have influence over decisions outside his or her formal job description."

But D.A. Gil Garcetti says he can’t prosecute, because the employee was not known to be involved in the contracting process and therefore was allowed to accept huge gifts. The county counsel says the matter is out of his civil-law reach because Ms. Dessalegn happened not to be one of those employees who are specifically, under state law, forbidden to get more than $300 worth of presents in a given year from any single county contractor.

Yet it is fairly common for persons in Dessalegn’s capacity to review the facts and even make decisions, subject only to the boss’s approval. That’s what top assistants are there for.

Yaroslavsky understands this, and basically wants to see that such employees — you might call them the decision makers’ decision makers — become more accountable. As the supervisor puts it, "Such individuals should be ‘designated employees’ under the county’s Conflict of Interest Codes and should be required to report potential conflicts of interest relative to any and all matters affecting their departments."

This is what state law already requires. And it sounds easy enough. The problem, however, lies in just how this designation process gets done. Yaroslavsky is asking an obscure county panel called the Code Review Commission to evaluate "all departmental Conflict of Interest Codes to ensure that ‘designated employees’ and ‘disclosure categories’ are sufficiently inclusive" in order to make it a lot tougher to hand $30,000 — a decent year’s pay for the majority of Angelenos — to anyone who might appear to be in a position to help with a big contract.

But how can any commission actually do this without reviewing the individual employee responsibilities themselves, to discover who’s in a position to influence a decision maker or even that decision maker’s assistants? It’s like asking someone to find out which of a huge bunch of keys fit in which of the county’s locks without trying them all out.

The code commission has only until November 10 to complete its report, and the last time I looked, there were around 40,000 county employees. As I break it down, in order perfectly to fulfill the supervisor’s request, the panel ought to vet some 2,000 positions a day in each of 20 or so available working days. Absurd, perhaps, but even a more realistic assessment of the top 5 percent of employees’ responsibilities would be an impossible task in this short a time.

The city of Los Angeles has a much better handle on this problem, via its own Ethics Commission. Over most of its nine years in existence, this panel has worked out — with each city department — which employees fall into the category of what are called "designated filers." These are the people who can’t accept big presents from anyone. And they include virtually every employee who appears to be in a position to affect any city spending decision.

Sorting out these "filers" is no easy task. As one commission insider put it, "The entire process is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. It has to be continuous, never ceasing," because in any huge bureaucracy, job descriptions and delegated responsibilities are in constant flux.

So the well-meant Yaroslavsky motion probably won’t solve the basic problem. The real answer to the Mesfin Mercedes matter is to establish permanent consults with senior department people as to who really makes decisions, and then put these people out of the reach of excessive contractor generosity. Something very like the city Ethics Commission, a version of which Supervisor Gloria Molina unsuccessfully sought to establish in county government nearly seven years ago.

If something like this doesn’t happen, and soon, this time next year we may be reading about some department assistant to whom a happy contractor gave a 50-foot yacht. And who then sailed away forever, into the setting sun, with the benefactor onboard.

Calderon’s Own

Former state Senator Charles Calderon’s primary defeat last year in his state attorney-general bid ended his term-limited career of state elective office with an anticlimactic bump. Unlike many of his termed-out Sacramento colleagues, however, Calderon has a downtown Los Angeles law practice. He wasn’t, therefore, forced into the desperate, mousy scurry for employment and public attention characteristic of certain of his former colleagues. Such as San Fernando Valley storm petrel Richard Katz.

Regardless, some people feel that the occasionally controversial whilom lawmaker went a bit too far in putting his past behind him recently, when he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the midst of a breach-of-contract trial in which he was defendant.

The plaintiff was his campaign consultant, Charlotte Dobbs & Co. Dobbs had contracted with Calderon to be paid 15 percent of "all non-family campaign contributions" in the course of Calderon’s failed campaign against Bill Lockyer, according to a September 20 Los Angeles Daily Journal report.

This amount due came to about $83,000, according to Calderon’s bankruptcy filings.

What got to Dobbs was the low priority in which her fiscal obligation was held. According to the Journal, Dobbs planned to introduce evidence when the case went to trial this week that Calderon had paid such "campaign" expenditures as $2,600 for a new suit and $470 for a tie to wear in a TV ad, plus $1,500 to fly his family to a conference in Hawaii.

According to Dobbs’ attorney, Kevin Reed, Dobbs settled out of court with Calderon last month for an undisclosed amount.

For his part, Calderon contends that Dobbs & Co. didn’t perform up to his expectations. I guess that means "because he lost." Now this is a scary thought, at least for campaign consultants. Suppose a precedent were set by which all costs of campaign services to losing candidates were effectively uncollectible?

Since the case is now settled, there appears to be no present danger of such a dictum. Even so, this seemed to be rather a discreditable way for a public figure to be handling his financial obligation. Even one who, on the ’98 Primary Online Voter Guide home page of the California Online Voter Guide, left his three "Priorities if Elected to Office" entries blank.

Apparently, Calderon figured it out, too. His law partner, Michael Huemann, would say little about the matter this week, except: "Calderon is not pursuing this bankruptcy matter any further."

Calderon himself said he’s satisfied with the way things turned out. As for running for another office: "You never say never."

Gun Rules

My September suggestion that the oft-mentioned alleged Nazi law confiscating the guns of Jews might be an urban myth has spurred a lively contradictory correspondence, both in these pages and to me personally. So far, however, there’ve been no credible citings of a verifiable statute.

To spare my correspondents further wasted efforts, I’m setting some ground rules: (1) the citation must come from a credible work of history or biography — no more of this self-published stuff, nor anecdotes from books on unrelated topics. Or (2), preferably, an actual, precise citation from the 1930s German criminal code, known as the Bundesgesetzbuch (BGB for short). And please do give a return address. Happy hunting!�

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