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A Shark Tank of Lawyers Takes on Jack Weiss for L.A. City Attorney 

Five sharp lawyers try to upset the Westside politician’s bid for the office

Wednesday, Feb 25 2009
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There’s something about the Westside politician Jack Weiss — who is giving up his District 5 City Council seat to run for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s job — that some people simply do not like. Weiss is educated, clean and well-spoken. Yet he’s privately derided by his own city colleagues as the most insufferable member of the council — quite a feat on a City Council that critics see as one of the most arrogant in years. (See L.A. Weekly’s feature story today, “Los Angeles on $300,000 a Year.”)

A recent city-attorney candidate forum at the Westchester Christian Church brought out a handful of elderly couples and a few guys in baseball hats, there to see what all the fuss was about. As a ferocious rain pelted down outside, the topics inside were illegal billboards, corruption in City Hall, gang crime — and Weiss.

One candidate for city attorney, David Berger, had been there only a few minutes when he declared, “I attack [Weiss] for his appalling record” — and that was before Berger even started speaking before the small crowd of 18 at the event, put on by the Westchester/Playa del Rey Neighborhood Council.

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Berger, a Londoner who moved here in 1989, is a 12-year veteran of the Major Fraud Division at the L.A. County Deputy District Attorney’s Office. He is sharp-witted and well-mannered — except when it comes to Weiss. He wants anyone but Weiss to win. A long-shot in this race, Berger hopes a much better-funded candidate than he, Carmen Trutanich, will win. Berger gathered his 700 signatures to qualify for the March 3 ballot by chatting up Starbucks customers.

And now the mere mention of Weiss’ name causes the dapper Berger to get visibly irked. A YouTube video of Berger features him holding a large photo of Weiss, exclaiming: “You need to know what the enemy looks like!” A few weeks ago, he convinced a local radio station to play Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack.”

Berger is irked at more than just Weiss. He finds Delgadillo’s record as city attorney an embarrassment. Commenting on the huge monetary settlement handed to black firefighter Tennie Pierce, who claimed racism after being fed dog food in a firehouse prank by his Los Angeles Fire Department colleagues (L.A. Weekly showed in its 2007 investigation, “What Really Happened at Fire Station 5?” that racism did not play a role): “I would have eaten a spoonful of dog food for $1 million. I would have taken that case to trial.”

The downpour outside is causing the other candidates to run late. The next to arrive is Harbor City attorney Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich, who looks a bit like Chazz Palminteri. He delivers a passionate speech about growing up in San Pedro, his turn as a hardcore gang prosecutor, and his role starting up the Los Angeles County Toxic Waste Force with the district attorney’s office.

In private practice for 21 years, Trutanich, like Berger, is no slouch — and his plan for slapping down the city’s illegal billboard industry is far more hard-hitting than anything the Los Angeles City Council is contemplating. Trutanich says, “You have 90 days. If it is illegal, you better get rid of it. So far we are pussyfooting around with billboard companies because we are afraid to take them down. We get sued and we settle.”

Trutanich is more buttoned-down than the effusive Berger. His friend District Attorney Steve Cooley urged him to run, and, a few days ago, introduced Trutanich at a Hancock Park fund-raiser co-hosted by former City Planning Commission president Jane Usher. In a widely distributed public e-mail, Usher endorsed Trutanich and — yes — expressed her dislike for Weiss, who, she wrote, “is undermined by his antagonism to neighborhoods.” (Weiss’ campaign adviser dismisses Usher’s slams, saying, “It goes under the category of not accounting for taste.”)

Unknown just four months ago, Trutanich won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, calling it “an earthquake that shocked City Hall,” although these days a newspaper endorsement doesn’t go that far.

Weiss has gotten worried, and has accused some private companies Trutanich has represented of polluting San Pedro Bay or improperly disposing of hazardous waste. Weiss has even suggested that Trutanich is a National Rifle Association sympathizer because another person at his law firm represented the NRA, and Trutanich once defended a man charged with shooting sea lions.

Trutanich’s best chance for an upset seems to be Weiss’ unpopularity among those who know him. Voters, however, are another matter. So Trutanich has been hitting hard on Weiss’ many years at City Hall, accusing him of allowing overdevelopment and failing to attend council meetings 32 percent of the time in 2008 — a common complaint against the very frequently absent Weiss.

Weiss had not expected such a tough race. He had raised more than $1.6 million as of February 14, and earned what some call “hold your nose” endorsements from his council colleagues, as well as from the mayor, Magic Johnson and LAPD Chief William Bratton.

Weiss’ backers say he has pushed City Hall to resolve a scandalous backlog of untested DNA “rape kits” dating to 2002, and called for a policy to clear the backlog. He donated $350,000 from his City Council office funds to help pay for the DNA testing of that long-stored sperm and other evidence — something no other council member did. Even his campaign adviser, Ace Smith, concedes, “He is not exactly Mister Popularity on council,” but, “he is an independent and he calls them the way he sees them.”

Weiss played a role in the city’s disastrous deal to let billboard companies erect more than 800 digital billboards, which he now admits was “a mistake.” He has since fought to inspect billboards and charge them a fee, and called for a $2,500 daily penalty on building owners who allow illegal supergraphics.

But for all that, Weiss hasn’t accomplished much on either front — thousands of illegal billboards and supergraphics abound, and it took a newspaper exposé, not Weiss, to convince Bratton to take the DNA-testing problem seriously.

“He probably doesn’t want to answer to the public because of the harsh criticism he would receive by the people attending these forums,” says Westchester resident David Coffin, who was going to vote for another city-attorney candidate, activist lawyer Noel Weiss, but who now favors Trutanich.

Jack Weiss recently upset some council colleagues by sending out campaign materials depicting himself as the only council member who cares about rape victims. Barely controlling his contempt for Weiss, councilman Dennis Zine, a former cop, says, “He makes it sound like no one cares but him. He is manipulating the rape-kit issue. ... It’s all about his strategy: How am I going to become city attorney?”

In Westchester, the last candidate to arrive is Michael Amerian, a soft-spoken deputy city attorney who takes a seat next to Craig Wilson, a city employee who ends many of his comments to candidates with: “I am frothing at the mouth over this.”

Amerian is a polished speaker like the others, who once worked for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and later joined the city attorney’s office prosecuting domestic violence, vandalism and drunken-driving cases before moving to the Gang Unit in 2007.

At 34, he is the youngest candidate for city attorney, and the fans on his Facebook page include the Sierra Club and Radiohead. When moderator John Ramey asks Amerian what qualities make a good city attorney, Amerian says, “We need a devoted public servant. I don’t want an outsider to come in and reinvent the wheel.” Amerian got a campaign boost a few days later, earning the endorsement of outgoing City Controller Laura Chick — yet another slap at Jack Weiss from somebody who has worked with Weiss at City Hall for years.

As the debate this night comes to an end, Berger, the Englishman turned local D.A., asks those gathered to name the person they are not going to choose. “Jack Weiss,” the small crowd murmurs. “Jack Weiss ... that is it,” chuckles Berger.

Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com

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