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
A political-corruption scandal is not unlike the NBA season. It’s fun when it starts, but a couple months later it feels like it’s been dragging on for a lifetime. Just before you lose interest completely, though, the whole thing is expected to wrap up with a spectacular finish, a bit of frenzy and a certain amount of satisfaction that you stuck with it from beginning to end.
The money-laundering charges filed secretly last month against Los Angeles lawyer Pierce O’Donnell and seven personal and business associates hint at no impending final series in the city’s contracting probes, but seem instead like a foray in a whole new direction. In that sense they were unsettling and unsatisfactory. O’Donnell is charged (publicly, now) with reimbursing his friends and co-workers for their campaign donations to Mayor Jim Hahn so he could flood Hahn with money and avoid the $1,000-per-person spending limit. But he is not accused of doing it to snag lucrative city contracts.
“The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief that the very virtuous do?” wrote William Makepeace Thackery. The quote was cited a year ago in a Daily Journal column on moralist William J. Bennett’s gambling problems. Written by Pierce O’Donnell. “Trusted institutions have turned out to be corrupt,” O’Donnell wrote.
After months of resignations from city commissions and from inside Hahn’s office, after scathing reports from City Controller Laura Chick and subpoenas to aides and staffers to testify in front of two grand juries, the O’Donnell charges appear to take us no closer to a conclusion of City Hall pay-for-play.
Los Angeles residents, or at least those few who are fans of political intrigue, are becoming hungry for convictions and prison terms. There has been too much written about corruption at the city’s Airport Commission and Harbor Commission. Someone has to go down for — allegedly — selling city contracts for political donations.
But that’s the thing about L.A. Unlike in other cities, where corruption probes follow a predictable arc and end with spectacular convictions or acquittals, political scandals here rarely seem to finish up. It’s as if the Lakers made it through the first round of playoffs, then got together with the other teams and the refs and agreed to divide up the title and the championship winnings among them without having to play the rest of the games.
Several years ago, Councilman Richard Alatorre was accused of squeezing thousands of dollars from an apartment owner in exchange for his silence about building-code violations. He was said to have gone to bat for a development firm bidding on a $65 million MTA contract, in exchange for a free new roof for his house. Federal prosecutors helped persuade him not to seek re-election in 1999. But he then got a $100,000-a-year state job.
He finally took to a deal that had him plead guilty to tax evasion but do without the yearlong jail term or the $20,000 fine. Instead, he got a few months under his new roof wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. None of that apparently stopped him from entering into a consulting contract with the Department of Water and Power.
Councilman Arthur K. Snyder pleaded guilty to money laundering, but an appeals court threw out the plea and his six-month jail term and ruled that he couldn’t be tried criminally. The state Supreme Court later reinstated the conviction, but instead of prison, Snyder, too, did a few months of home time with electronic monitoring.
But at least they were convicted. Over the years, various other elected officials in Los Angeles would mysteriously step down from office or not seek re-election. Rumors circulated about gentlemanly agreements with prosecutors, but nothing could ever be proved.
When Steve Cooley became district attorney, he said things would be different, and, in a way, they are. Convictions of local political bandits like Omar Bradley in Compton and Albert Robles in South Gate are unprecedented. But they were small fry. Aborted prosecutions of police officers in the Rampart matter and lack of charges in the Belmont public school fiasco began to look like the old L.A. way of doing things. Stop the bad stuff, quietly, and let everyone go home.
There was, at least, the prosecution of Cody Cluff, the Richard Riordan appointee who ran the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. like his own private racket, under the unseeing eyes of the L.A. City Council and county Board of Supervisors. But Cluff, who pleaded no contest to embezzling public funds, could end up with a scant 90 days.
Some are now grousing in Cooley’s office about the focus on the Public Integrity Division (PID). Prosecutors in other units are quietly questioning why the district attorney has placed so much emphasis on politically high-profile stakes while other matters are left without enough investigators, or resources, or attention from the top. ‰
“What has PID come up with other than headlines?” asks a beleaguered prosecutor in another division.