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John Mack and Connie Rice have looked at corruption from both sides now

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006
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THE OPENING PARAGRAPHS OF “RAMPART RECONSIDERED,” the much-ballyhooed, 89-page report on the corruption scandal that rocked the Los Angeles Police Department seven years ago, don’t offer many surprises. A handful of players, it says, were permitted to engage in corrupt practices at the LAPD’s Rampart Division, with higher-ups either looking the other way or sanctioning the bad behavior. Never again, the report insists, should the city foster a culture that encourages such wrongdoing.

Attorney Connie Rice, a fixture in civil-rights circles who has pushed the LAPD to confront its corrupt behavior, presented “Rampart Reconsidered” to the Police Commission last week. Police Commission President John Mack, one of the five citizens picked by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to oversee the LAPD, lavished praise on Rice’s report.

Yet even as they congratulated each other for their work on the Rampart presentation, Mack and Rice were being recognized for their efforts to address the aftermath of a different City Hall scandal.

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In an e-mail invitation that has ricocheted throughout City Hall, Mack and Rice are two of the civic stars cohosting Friday’s fund-raiser for the legal-defense fund of Martin Ludlow, the former Los Angeles city councilman sentenced six weeks ago for his role in a campaign corruption scandal. The only question now is, by using their names to lure contributors to Ludlow’s legal-defense fund, are Mack and Rice part of a culture that rewards wrongdoing as well?

Ludlow pleaded guilty in March to charges stemming from a scheme in which he secretly used union workers on his 2003 City Council campaign, a move that ended his tenure as the head of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Prosecutors described in detail how Ludlow skirted the rules on fund-raising limits, handed campaign workers envelopes of cash and worked closely with a union leader who now stands accused of embezzling union funds.

The invitation to Ludlow’s legal-defense fund-raiser offers a different version of events, praising Ludlow for responding courageously to “tremendous legal and professional challenges” while neglecting to mention two felony-conspiracy convictions, the misdemeanor convictions and nearly $187,000 worth of fines — most of which will now be paid off by lobbyists, consultants and, of course, City Hall employee unions.

“Martin has spent 20 years serving in grassroots positions in South-Central Los Angeles and is known around the country for being a man who gets things done quickly, efficiently and ethically,” the invitation states.

It’s hard to picture Mack and Rice cohosting such an event at a tony estate in Holmby Hills for a police officer convicted of corruption charges. But Ludlow, as the invitation points out, is different. He worked for Villaraigosa and former Governor Gray Davis. The invite commends him for “admitting a mistake in judgment” and refusing to blame — or do they mean finger? — others in the city. “We know, the true character of a man reveals itself in times of controversy,” the invitation adds.

Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman, who prosecuted the Ludlow case at the state level, agrees that the former councilman was especially willing to admit guilt and move the case quickly through the justice system. But Huntsman argues that the invitation glosses over the exact nature of the crimes.

“It was very calculated behavior involving a whole bunch of people,” Huntsman says. “It was done intentionally. It went on over a period of time, and there was a cover-up. It was very, very dishonest, and very, very inappropriate.”

Several efforts to interview Mack were unsuccessful. But Rice said she signed on to the fund-raiser because she sees Ludlow as a great leader, and the offenses as campaign violations, not corruption. “He’s taken responsibility for what he did wrong, and he needs to land on his feet, and because we need him,” she said.

“Do I support people who take responsibility for their mistakes and seek to rehabilitate themselves? I’ve done it many times,” Rice added.

Mack and Rice are serving on the fund-raiser’s reception committee with Maria Elena Durazo, the woman who took Ludlow’s place at the County Federation of Labor, and Councilman Herb Wesson, the man who took Ludlow’s hastily vacated seat on the council. Contributors will be allowed to spend up to $4,000 each — eight times the contribution limit for Ludlow’s old council campaign — to support a man who is barred from campaign fund-raising for the next three years.

But what, you may ask, about the report? In a nutshell, Rice told the commission last week that the best way to combat police brutality is to hire more police — 3,000 or even 4,000 more. Rice passionately delivered the same advice 18 months ago, when the council debated and rejected plans for a half-cent sales tax increase that would have funded roughly 1,200 officers. Police Chief William Bratton made a similar pitch last year, saying the staffing shortage fosters an “us against them” culture among officers.

Rice’s most jarring message was in her remarks to the commission, where she warned that the city needs to ensure that police reform continues to take hold after Bratton leaves the LAPD. Hold on a minute. Is Bratton going somewhere? Probably not.

And yet, Bratton has only a year left on his contract, and may be growing tired of waiting for the city to hire the additional cops. After all, Villaraigosa’s plan for hiring a thousand cops is heavily back-loaded: Only 135 of the 1,000 officers will be hired during the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2007. As if to speed the police chief out the door, Councilman Bernard Parks and four other council members also sent letters demanding an investigation into the police chief’s off-the-cuff, occasionally disrespectful comments about council members.

Villaraigosa agreed wholeheartedly this week with Rice’s main finding. Yet he too sounded like he may not be around to wrestle with the question of how, or whether, to pay for 3,000 more police. “The 1,000 officers is our first-phase commitment,” Villaraigosa told a room full of reporters. “But I’ll hope that some other mayor — or maybe in our second term, but you know — will continue to build on that.”

If Villaraigosa runs for governor in 2010 and wins, the city will need a new mayor to figure out the LAPD’s staffing woes — someone with the enthusiastic backing of labor leaders and civil-rights advocates. But of course! Martin Ludlow. Under the terms of his probation, he will be eligible to run for office in 2010.

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