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Rocky Delgadillo's Flameout 

Once a rising star, the city attorney muffs it with endless screwups

Wednesday, Jun 27 2007
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{mosimage}It was one indicator of the feeding frenzy over Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s ethics peccadilloes that when the L.A. Weekly sought comment from Doug Dowie, a convicted PR executive whom Delgadillo accused of padding billings to the city by a staggering $4.2 million, a Dowie friend inadvertently sent a response intended for Dowie, exclaiming, “Your life is on the uptick and [Delgadillo’s] is destructing without you having to do a thing (it’s very Zen to learn to take pleasure in the work of others).”

In 2005, during the Fleishman-Hillard PR billing scandal, Delgadillo was applauded for his tough stance on political corruption in City Hall. The media sucked it up, for months covering the apparently huge Fleishman-Hillard fraud against taxpayers. Dowie was found guilty, but the headline-grabbing claim by Delgadillo and City Controller Laura Chick of a $4.2 million fraud — a figure so high it attracted federal prosecutors and international coverage and helped sink Mayor James Hahn — was greatly exaggerated. A federal judge ruled the fraud came to $529,000, an amount that, while steep, would not have engendered nearly the outrage.

But that was back when Rocky could do little wrong and his being off by millions in his attacks on Fleishman-Hillard was largely accepted by journalists. Now, it seems, he can do nothing right. He improperly let his wife drive his city-owned GMC Yukon, which she banged up — then he got it repaired at taxpayer expense. He and his wife both drove without car insurance for a year, and she failed to get a city license for her home-based business. Now, he is denying rumors that his staffers baby-sat and ran private errands for him on the taxpayers’ dime.

It may sound like small stuff to the average Joe — something that might not get the city attorney more than a slap on the wrist by the California Bar Association. But this is a lawyer with endless political ambitions who probably wants to run for district attorney or city controller in 2009, yet has managed to turn as noncontroversial a job as city attorney into a potential disaster.

He styles himself as an Antonio II, but he’s never mastered the sound bite or been treated kindly by the cameras he craves. And now the media pack, which Delgadillo has spent much of his time massaging, has turned against him.

A few days after the Los Angeles Times reported that Delgadillo’s wife, Michelle, got in an accident in a city-owned Yukon in 2004, he dodged reporters at a press conference in Culver City about at-risk youth. “We can talk about all those other things some other time,” he stumbled. “We are here today to talk about these kids.” Under media pressure to discuss the various controversies, he held a second press conference, which made little sense, and his press deputies had to explain to reporters what he really meant.

“There are two fundamental rules to damage control,” says Dan Schnur, former political director for Governor Pete Wilson. “The first is to get your story out as quickly as possible. The second is to get it out correctly so you don’t have to keep talking about it. I don’t know if any of those rules held up so well for Rocky this week.”

The first trouble hit on June 9, when the Times reported that Michelle Delgadillo was ticketed in 2005 for failing to obey a right-turn-only sign while driving with a suspended license, which was revoked from July 25, 2004, to March 6, 2007, over her failure to provide proof of insurance after an accident.

“He is not responsible for his wife,” Council Member Dennis Zine tells the Weekly. “[But] you wouldn’t think the prosecutor of Los Angeles, his family, would have a warrant or operate [a vehicle] without a valid driver’s license.”

That news would have barely registered had it not come the same day that a miffed Delgadillo told a judge that Paris Hilton, who pleaded no contest to driving on a suspended license, should serve more time in jail. Delgadillo accused Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of preferential treatment for letting Hilton out after three days of a 23-day sentence.

“If law-enforcement officials are to enjoy the respect of those we are charged with protecting, we cannot tolerate a two-tiered jail system where the rich and powerful receive special treatment,” Delgadillo insisted. An infuriated Baca strongly denied that Hilton got special treatment, and Baca’s claim turned out to be true. Hilton had served about the same jail time as others convicted of similar crimes — around 10 percent of her sentence.

It wasn’t the first time Delgadillo had come down hard on the blond celebutante. When a judge in May sentenced the hotel heiress to 45 days in jail, Delgadillo remarked, “The ruling sends a clear message that in the city of Los Angeles, no one is above the law.”

In fact, Delgadillo has set himself out as a fighter for the common man. But public reaction is showing that nothing pisses off everyday people like politicians who think rules are for everybody else.

Initially, when news surfaced that Delgadillo’s city-owned vehicle was damaged in an accident in 2004, he refused to comment on it. An unidentified source told the Times that Delgadillo’s car had been backed into a structure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center by his wife, who was there for a doctor’s appointment. And two other sources told the Times that Delgadillo occasionally let her use the city car. After that, Delgadillo’s office lashed back in an intriguing e-mail to the Times, which the paper then published: “The city attorney will simply not respond to non-sourced City Hall rumors fed to you by disgruntled employees that take aim at his wife or family.”

Although Delgadillo blamed “disgruntled employees,” Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar with USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, argues, “If the media is paying enormous attention to it, it is because they are guided by the actions of the city attorney himself. This is the guy who prosecuted Paris Hilton — and chastised the sheriff for allowing her early release . . . His job is to oversee the law and ethics regulations. I don’t think the average voter would understand or be comfortable that the top lawyer from L.A. has disregarded some laws and rules, and at worst broken them.”



DELGADILLO GREW UP IN HIGHLAND PARK, went off to Harvard University and Columbia Law School, and returned to L.A., where he got a job with O’Melveny & Myers. There, he met former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who saw political promise in him. Christopher persuaded the young attorney to enter public life, and in the mid-1990s, Delgadillo was chosen by Mayor Richard Riordan as a deputy mayor, and he led an effort to fix the city’s byzantine business-tax system.

“He had a very good reputation when he was on Riordan’s staff, and he did a lot to save businesses,” says Bee Canterbury Lavery, a former press secretary to the late Mayor Tom Bradley. Delgadillo dated a series of local beauties, including Michelle Namen, whom he met at Riordan’s second inauguration. Namen, from a small town in Montana, had “princess potential,” says one former City Hall official — their wedding was held in a $25 million Malibu manse — and she was “a little high strung.” They married just two weeks after she was cited by the CHP on August 1, 1998, for allegedly driving with an expired Montana driver’s license in Santa Monica, according to news reports.

He soon garnered the backing of such business leaders as Eli Broad and Magic Johnson and grew politically tight with Riordan and Christopher. Unlike Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Delgadillo is one of the few Latino politicians rising in L.A. who is a moderate and is not aligned with powerful unions, and thus he was seen as less threatening to voters citywide — and statewide. In 2001, he beat Councilman Mike Feuer for city attorney after a bitter campaign in which Feuer opposed illegal billboards while the outdoor-advertising industry gave Delgadillo $430,000 worth of free billboard ads.

Delgadillo bought a pad in upscale Windsor Village, and his staff started calling itself “Team 1600” — the address of the White House. But he forgot something in his battle to become the next big thing: Politicians live under a microscope, and when the microscope is turned on them, they had better come out clean.

When he tried to own up to his wife’s accident, it was too little too late: He produced a document showing that the SUV repair cost was $1,222 — not the $2,000-plus the media claimed. But, says a City Hall source from Delgadillo’s camp who asked not to be identified, “We suggested that he come clean” even earlier so that the ethics lapses would “get buried between [coverage of] Antonio and Paris.” But behind closed doors, Delgadillo resisted — and then didn’t quite come clean.

Michelle Delgadillo, interviewed on KABC Channel 7 as she strolled with her two kids, admitted she was “not a stellar driver,” and needed to be better organized. A city employee who knows her says she is “completely disorganized to the detriment of her personal life.”



BUT THERE WAS MORE bad news, as reports surfaced that Delgadillo had driven without insurance for a year, his wife for two years. One source in the City Attorney’s Office said Delgadillo was surprised — along with everyone else. Then, local talk radio stations had a field day following newspaper reports that Delgadillo allegedly used city employees to baby-sit his two kids (he insisted that staffers baby-sat only on their personal time) and that his wife’s consulting business failed to file state tax returns between 2002 and 2005.

After media inquiries, Michelle Delgadillo finally got a city business license. A city employee says that because Delgadillo is an expert on the city business-tax system, it is impossible to believe “he didn’t know his wife was operating an illegal business out of her home.”

It was just the type of misdemeanor offense Delgadillo could prosecute — if he chose. Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, says, “It baffles me because I think he is a much smarter guy than he has appeared in the last couple of weeks.”

Former Mayor Riordan told the Weekly that media leaks targeting Delgadillo show that “People would love to knock the king off the mountain. A lot of people would like to do that. When there is a leak in the dam, it just gets bigger and bigger.” But even Riordan couldn’t resist a quip, saying, “Next time, he should hire Steve Lopez from the Times to be his adviser.”

Did the city attorney get stuck in this predicament on his own, or did somebody set Delgadillo on this rocky road? A second source in Delgadillo’s office says it started with his wife’s suggestion that Delgadillo play hardball with Paris Hilton. “She pushed hard for Rocky to go after Hilton,” the source says.

But even before his media-grabbing attack on Baca over Hilton, Delgadillo had made enemies because of his political endorsements and his public digs at City Council members and former politicos. One of his biggest foes is Villaraigosa. Delgadillo did not endorse Villaraigosa for City Council in 2003, instead endorsing incumbent Nick Pacheco. Then, Delgadillo failed to back Villaraigosa for mayor. Little surprise when Villaraigosa became mayor and hired his own lawyer, Tom Saenz, to advise him — and put the city attorney at arm’s length.

The timing of apparent leaks to Times reporter Patrick McGreevy came amid statewide coverage of Villaraigosa’s crumbling marriage and his wife Corina’s abrupt filing for divorce. “We think it is odd that it happened last week, when the talk of the town was that there were rumors that the mayor was having an extramarital affair,” says the Delgadillo office source, who painted a picture of Delgadillo employees tossing around names as they tried to figure out if somebody close to Villaraigosa used Delgadillo as a media diversion. A spokeswoman for Villaraigosa denied that he has engaged in any media diversion.

District Attorney Steve Cooley is another critic of Delgadillo’s. On June 13, Cooley chimed in with new attacks, slamming Delgadillo for failing to refer to Cooley eight cases Delgadillo instead handled as misdemeanors that Cooley says were “clearly potential felony filings.”

Regarding Delgadillo’s current ethics troubles, Cooley, on his Web site, says, “Stories suggesting improper conduct by Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo justifiably raise concerns. However, because of Mr. Delgadillo’s stated interest in running for the Office of District Attorney next year, any comment by District Attorney Steve Cooley is inappropriate.”

Support for Delgadillo looks bleak. Most City Council members are staying mum. “The politicians are very nervous,” says Bebitch Jeffe. “It is very uncomfortable for those politicians to criticize Delgadillo for something they might have done [let relatives use city cars], even inadvertently.”

Moreover, because Delgadillo is so ambitious — he has not yet decided whether he wants to run for D.A., city controller or statewide office when he is forced out by term limits in 2009 — several politicians see him as a threat. Last week, council members Wendy Greuel — a possible opponent against Delgadillo for city controller — and Dennis Zine called for independent investigations of Delgadillo.

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission and the State Bar Association are investigating, which came as a surprise to Bill Boyarsky, a city ethics commissioner and former Times editor. Boyarsky told the Weekly he didn’t even know his office was probing Delgadillo — until he read it in the press. Boyarsky complains that events have moved so quickly, “I pick up the newspaper and it says the Ethics Commission is investigating.”

Now, Council Member Greig Smith, of the San Fernando Valley, is considering a motion to allow voters to decide if the city attorney should be elected — as it stands now — or appointed by the City Council and mayor. Had Delgadillo been appointed, Smith says, “We would either reprimand or fire, because we would have that option.”



SO DOES THIS SPELL THE POLITICAL END for Delgadillo, who in 2001 became the first Mexican-American elected citywide in modern times? That year, he took over a department with 520 attorneys and a budget of about $95 million. As time wore on, he went through nine press deputies and his love of the spotlight became legendary.

Last year, the LA Observed Web site published a leaked memo that instructed staff attorneys on how to identify misdemeanor cases likely to earn Delgadillo’s office the most news coverage. The big winners, the memo advised, were cases involving celebrities, “no matter how minor,” political figures, police officers and anything to do with animal mutilation.

Laughs aside, Delgadillo has managed some solid accomplishments. He accelerated the expansion of gang injunctions and developed a well-received neighborhood-prosecution program. He dramatically reduced liability payouts to people who sue the city. He also took on former Mayor James Hahn — albeit for exaggerated ethics breaches involving Doug Dowie and Fleishman-Hillard.

But his naked ambition was lurking. Eight days after he won his second term as city attorney, he announced his run for California attorney general. He got beat in the Democratic primary by Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown after he got caught fibbing in campaign ads that he had gone to Harvard on a football scholarship (there were no football scholarships when Delgadillo attended).

“Those things are easy to trace,” Boyarsky says. “I think his political career has been going down since . . . he ran so badly against Brown.”

In some ways even worse, throughout the AG campaign, the sophisticated and witty Brown, though much older, made the plodding Delgadillo look like a non-entity who couldn’t keep up. “All those things come back and haunt you,” says Boyarsky.

Last August, his strained relations with the Los Angeles City Council and Villaraigosa surfaced after Delgadillo attacked as “unconstitutional” Measure R on last fall’s ballot, which extended term limits for council members. And in September, Councilwoman Jan Perry hired her own attorneys for advice on how to proceed in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU over a city ban on sidewalk sleeping.

In October, the City Council hired a legislative analyst to give it additional legal advice, citing its frustration over Delgadillo. Smith says that too often, when the council wanted advice, “There was no one there to give it.”

Relations between Delgadillo and the 15-member council further soured last November after he recommended settling a discrimination lawsuit by firefighter Tennie Pierce for $2.7 million. Pierce had been tricked into eating dog food by fellow firefighters, but was later shown to be a big-time prankster himself. Says Councilman Smith, “They really dropped the ball on that case terribly . . . Rocky admitted he blew it.” The city is now being represented by the private law firm Jones Day in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by Pierce over the dog-food caper.

Recently, when a judge ruled against the Department of Water and Power for overcharging Los Angeles schools and other entities $220 million for energy, Smith says, he heard about the massive courtroom defeat not from Delgadillo but from a reporter. “I said, ‘What the hell happened?’ ” says Smith.

Delgadillo also pissed off opponents of illegal billboards when he inexplicably settled a lawsuit against the billboard industry after powerful billboard companies fought it in court. Five years after the supposed council “ban,” Delgadillo agreed to a host of concessions sought by billboard companies — which had backed him for city attorney. Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America, a group that fights visual pollution, called the settlement “unsettling and bizarre.”

Despite all his troubles, it could be argued that with his gang injunctions, nuisance-abatement actions and prosecutions of slumlords, Delgadillo has accomplished more than the quiet James Hahn, who held the job for 17 years before becoming mayor. The tragedy might be that Delgadillo couldn’t resist the camera glare after trying — and failing — to emulate the media-seeking Antonio.

“This is a tremendous disappointment, because we all thought he would be going someplace politically,” says former Bradley aide Lavery. “Maybe he just left too much stuff up to his wife.”

Adds Greig Smith, “He has had a bad year. A year from hell.”
click to enlarge Princess potential: Did Michelle Delgadillos scofflaw habits rub off on Rocky? (MICHELLE: AP/L.A. TIMES/MYUNG J. CHUN; ROCKY: AP/KEVORK DJANSEZIAN)
  • Princess potential: Did Michelle Delgadillos scofflaw habits rub off on Rocky? (MICHELLE: AP/L.A. TIMES/MYUNG J. CHUN; ROCKY: AP/KEVORK DJANSEZIAN)

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