FOR A WHILE LAST YEAR, I SEEMED TO RUN into former District Attorney Gil Garcetti every week. He was hyperactive in his son Eric's successful campaign for the City Council, and wherever Eric, a dogged campaigner, turned up, so did Gil, his top adviser.
On one of those occasions, I asked the elder Garcetti what he wanted to do next in his own career. He said he wanted to be director of the Huntington Library.
It's pretty uncommon, I thought, for someone pushing 60 to propose so picturesque a payoff to a public attorney's career. I mean no disrespect to the current Huntington director when I say that Garcetti might have done well out there in San Marino, culling statues instead of statutes. Even if the Huntington board didn't ask him in for an interview, however, who could blame Garcetti for wanting a challenge beyond his defined limits as a former elected official?
Now Garcetti's about to move into another post that no politician's ever held: a five-year term on the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission, you'll recall, is the 10-year-old agency that decides whether the activities -- particularly those involving campaign money -- of the city's 18 elected officials are played according to Hoyle. Council President Alex Padilla made the nomination. "Garcetti's 32 years of experience in the District Attorney's Office and his strong leadership as [the] county's top prosecutor leadership make him eminently qualified to serve," said Padilla. (Padilla's own previous involvement with the commission was a $79,000 fine early this year for fudging matching-fund rules and contribution-limit laws in his initial 1999 campaign.)
Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the Garcetti appointment as our young council president, though council confirmation seems virtually certain. An individual associated with the commission said, "On the one hand, he probably knows where a lot of bodies are buried. On the other, would he really go to the trouble of digging them up?" Another called him "a member in good standing of the old boys' network."
Garcetti himself battled accusations from his 1996 runoff challenger, John Lynch, that he'd done favors for some of his own campaign contributors. He won anyway. That time.
As a county official, Garcetti's had little to do with the City Ethics Commission -- although commission groupies recall a low point nine years ago, when Garcetti promoted prosecutor Deputy District Attorney Bill Hodgman after Hodgman denounced the commission's allegations that thenCity Attorney Jim Hahn had committed campaign violations. (Because the commission's investigation involved a felony accusation, it was taken on by Garcetti's predecessor, Ira Reiner, and handed over to Hodgman, who found no wrongdoing.)
Garcetti's major skirmish with city officialdom came later, in 2000, the year Steve Cooley defeated him. Garcetti and thenLAPD Chief Bernie Parks had a set-to when the chief denied Garcetti access to officer records in the Rampart case: This refusal was ultimately thwarted by an order from Hahn.
Ironically, one of Garcetti's commission chores would be to monitor the 8th District City Council campaign of Parks, whom Hahn's Police Commission rejected this year for a second term as chief.
The initial 1992 generation of ethics commissioners included a variety of professionals, such as USC law professor Dennis Curtis, veteran journalist Ed Guthman and American Association of Retired Persons executive Treesa Drury. Since then, however, commissioners have tended to be practicing attorneys.
Garcetti said, "My background is maybe unique. I'm not sure [my appointment] can yet be said to be a precedent" for putting former politicians on the commission. "But as a former prosecutor, it'll be in my nature to move things forward. I've been through three tough elections, so I know the pressures of campaigns. But I also know the importance of observing the law."
Garcetti's civic career -- like Parks' -- was heavily shadowed by the 1999 Rampart CRASH corruption case, which suggested that both police and prosecutorial officials had too long ignored that particular barrel of LAPD bad apples. But Garcetti's reputation probably took its worst hit from the 1995 O.J. Simpson acquittal, which carried the district attorney's name around the world in no positive way. On the other hand, the quiet successes of his department's family-law and spousal-protection policies made him popular with woman and minority voters.
Whatever caveats one might have had, one has to admire anyone who, at 61, can view two terms running the largest D.A.'s Office in the universe as a career midpoint. In addition to his monthly Ethics Commission meetings, Garcetti said he will be lecturing at Harvard's Kennedy School this autumn. He also has a book of his photographs, Iron: Erecting Walt Disney Concert Hall, due to be published in October. The originals will be shown in a Santa Monica art gallery. You have to hand it to the guy: He isn't slowing down.
Disorder in the Court
As recently as 20 years ago, a few backwoods officials still existed in certain Faulknerian little swamp towns who'd try, with the cooperation of kettle-bellied, truncheon-wielding local Constable Montgomery Ward Snopes or his ilk, to kick the press out of a public meeting just when things were getting interesting. Since then, with the coming of sunshine laws all over the country, plus the retirement of most of the Snopeses from law enforcement, local government tends to let the media do their job unhindered. At least in public-meeting venues.
But complete knowledge of open-meeting reform seems not to have percolated into our own local court system. Last Friday, veteran Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alice Altoon ordered two journalists out of her downtown Criminal Court room. The general public was allowed to stay. The two reporters, Kimberly Edds of the Metropolitan News Enterprise and Channel 11 News reporter Aidan Pickering, refused to go. The rhubarb arose during a pretrial hearing for two accused embezzlers: former Beverly Hills lawyer Angela Wallace and her alleged accomplice, Timothy Mack. In the course of which, according to the transcript, Mack asked Altoon if he could dismiss Anthony R. Garcia, his court-appointed lawyer, and represent himself. Under a 1970 state Supreme Court precedent, judges usually consider the matter in a closed hearing, to avoid the public airing of such differences as may have arisen between counsel and client. But instead of ordering the closed hearing that is usual in such motions -- by which the entire court would have been cleared -- Altoon simply told the two reporters and the prosecution to leave. "This is a confidential hearing," Altoon said, according to the transcript, "in the sense of I don't want any of this in the newspapers."
The reporters both protested. Pickering said, "I'm not trying to be difficult here, but if you are letting the public stay, [then] it is a public hearing."
Altoon responded, "You're not guaranteeing me that you will not report it, so I'm going to ask you to leave. Please do so now."
The reporters refused to leave. Pickering threatened, "I'll be here all day." The judge, after saying she'd considered asking the bailiff to eject the pair, went to other items on her calendar until the prosecution sent in a message wondering why the Mack matter was taking so long. Altoon blamed the reporters for the delay. The standoff ended when Altoon came back from a recess and Garcia told her his client had said there would be no need for a hearing.
Later, according to the Met News, Superior Court spokesman Alan Parachini said that judges are "not hostile" to reporters, but may be unfamiliar with court protocols.
I'd say it's time that someone circulated a memo.