By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Pierce’s wife wept as she told the council how the incident affected her husband. “He’s lost his dignity. He’s lost his love for his fellow firefighters,” she said.
The council — a group known for eating and talking among themselves during public testimony — couldn’t turn away. For a brief moment, they seemed to leave aside the motives that normally factor into any controversial vote: the next election, their next office, their next feud with Delgadillo. Like the city’s legal team, several council members concluded that Pierce and his family could quite possibly kick the city’s — and taxpayers’ — asses in front of a jury. “We should all be very frightened about what will happen in the event that this goes to a court of law,” said Councilman Herb Wesson after hearing the testimony.
Then things got back to normal, sort of. Councilman Greig Smith refused to buy Pierce’s story, saying the act wasn’t racism but rather pranksterism. Councilman Dennis Zine pointed out that the day was really about, well, Dennis Zine. Having pushed the mayor for a veto of the huge settlement, Zine boasted that he had exposed the department’s history of hazing and its “problems with disrespect for other people.”
Yet even as they promised to protect the city’s pocketbook, Zine and Smith loudly argued that the dog-food debacle was an awful, egregious act — comments that will easily strengthen Pierce’s case before a jury. Jurors might be equally confused by Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who favored the veto yet ran out and gave Pierce a bear hug after his testimony.
Villaraigosa offered his own mixed signals. Council members returned from Thanksgiving vacation to find an e-mail from Deputy Mayor Kevin Acebo explaining that the mayor wants a new review of the case. But “reconsideration [of the payout] does not mean rejection of the settlement,” he said.
Uh, okay. But if there’s nothing wrong with the settlement, why reconsider it? The problem is, Villaraigosa’s camp is on a tightrope, trying to win against the council — but not too big. By casting a veto, Villaraigosa looked like a strong mayor who showed that the council doesn’t mind the store. That gambit won him an angry letter from Jesse Jackson and a protest from the local chapter of the NAACP. If the Pierce settlement is abandoned, things could get out of hand — an ugly trial, a potentially larger jury award and even more blowback from voter-rich black L.A. To get back in the NAACP’s good graces, Villaraigosa might even fire Bamattre, whose department has become a lawsuit incubator.
But by then, the Pierce affair will have screwed the city’s political leaders no matter what they do. Embracing the $2.7 million settlement will be viewed as financially foolish in much of the city, becoming fodder for weeks of venting on talk radio. Rejecting it will infuriate the city’s African-American leadership, who sidled up to Villaraigosa after Hahn removed Bernard Parks as police chief.
African-American leaders might not forget if Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who’s eyeing the powerful city controller’s job, upholds the veto. Or if Councilman Jack Weiss, a likely candidate for city attorney, sticks with his good friend the mayor. And by now, nearly everyone at City Hall may have second thoughts the next time they’re tempted to take a look inside the walls, at the messy plumbing within.
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