A Private Chick

As word of City Controller Laura Chick’s private house meetings with four top mayoral candidates leaked out last week, Deputy City Attorney Kristina Scott was asked whether Chick sought legal advice before arming Mayor Jim Hahn’s challengers with opposition research accusing him and his administration of flagrant mismanagement. Scott also was asked whether Chick picked up the phone before making public the memo that Chick and her staff gave to the candidates. At first, Scott wouldn’t say much, citing the attorney-client privilege. “I cannot confirm or deny whether I have advised her on this matter,” she said. But when told that Chick continued to deem the meetings and the memo private, yet had held two press conferences in a very public City Hall to address the matter, Scott paused and said, “I was not aware of that.” Chick scrambled to lay the matter to rest and finally released the memo at the 3 p.m. press conference last Friday, taking exception to any concerns that she acted inappropriately. But the issue refuses to die. “This is a troubling matter which raises a variety of legal issues,” Chief Deputy City Attorney Terree Bowers said on Monday. “It’s an extremely risky area with lots of pitfalls, such as the confidentiality of ongoing criminal investigations. Even the synthesis of public information by an official could disclose theories of prosecution that are not self-evident. Then there’s the risk of an unintentional waiver of the attorney-client privilege. Whether she has inappropriately blurred the lines between public service and private action I cannot say. I don’t have all the details. Yet we believe it was prudent for her to release the memo, and you are free to make any inferences you want from that.” In addition, a motion before the City Council to create an investigative fraud-and-abuse unit in Chick’s office has been delayed as council members reconsider giving additional resources to an elected official so invested in the political process. Said an aide to one council member, “City officials had concerns about the fraud-and-abuse unit before this happened. This is an opportunity to go back and examine what are the safeguards associated with the proposal.” So, just where does the public Chick end, and the private Chick begin? Early last week, the L.A. Weekly reported that Chick had provided Hahn’s four major challengers — Bob Hertzberg, state Senator Richard Alarcón, and City Councilmen Bernard Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa — with an overview of the Fleishman-Hillard and pay-to-play scandals unfolding in City Hall. Chick knew it would be inappropriate to use city personnel and resources in preparing and distributing such a memo to the candidates. But she wanted to enrich the public debate by sharing what she knew after three and a half years of dogging Hahn. So she had her staff take vacation time to compile and present the 22-page anti-Hahn memo. Chick does not keep a time sheet but says she took personal leave to meet with her staff and the candidates at her house — off the record. So as not to violate city ethics rules, Chick even paid for the coffee out of her own pocket. Governmental-reform experts were perplexed. City Council members, especially those who have endorsed Hahn, were concerned. Reporters wanted the memo, which, as it turned out, lacked the poignancy one might expect from such a secretive enterprise. Observers were incredulous. “How does an elected official take government work product to their house, conduct secret meetings for partisan political purposes, then claim it’s a private act?” a state elected official asked. “I have a point of view to share,” Chick said in her own defense. “I want people to know what I know. I’m not embarrassed. Nothing was done furtively.” The candidates said they agreed up-front not to share the memo, however. They kept their word. When asked for a copy of the memo, Chick also at first refused to give it out, claiming it was a private document prepared on private time. A spokesperson for Chick suggested that one of the candidates should hand over the memo. Then Chick called a press conference — in City Hall — where she informed reporters she was not endorsing a candidate until the runoff, and that she had met with the candidates to talk about city audits. By midweek it was clear that something had taken place that neither Chick nor the candidates were comfortable discussing — except to imply that Hahn has presided over a poorly run administration and should definitely not be re-elected. Yet no one would cough up the memo. After receiving a California Public Records Act Request from the Weekly last Wednesday, and after City Council members Eric Garcetti and Cindy Miscikowski on Friday balked at whether to support the fraud-and-abuse investigative unit Chick is asking for, Chick held another press conference — in City Hall — and finally gave a copy of her memo to reporters. The memo is essentially a report card on the Hahn administration, including summaries of Chick’s findings from the port audit, the airport audit, a Department of Water and Power “Green Power Audit,” and the Fleishman-Hillard audit. It contains a list of the “Mayor’s Associates” and several pages of criticism regarding Hahn’s “Leadership Style.” It strikes a casual tone and uses expressions such as “give the money back Jimmy,” when addressing money that Hahn’s commissioners have raised for him in the past. Members of Chick’s staff are well aware of the distinction she is drawing between public service and private political activity. When contacted last week, her communications director, Rob Wilcox, said he could only address questions on his lunch break, as it would be inappropriate to discuss the matter on city time. On Friday, when he was asked to fax the memo to the Weekly, rather than require a visit to City Hall to obtain it, he offered to fax it from Mailboxes Etc. or Kinko’s. Obviously, Wilcox explained, he was prohibited from using city time or a city fax machine to transmit the memo. But somehow that prohibition did not prevent the controller from summoning reporters to her second press conference of the week in City Hall. “This is not a Controller’s Office exercise,” Wilcox insisted, offering his home telephone number to field further inquiries. Wilcox attended the meetings held recently by Chick at her house along with top deputies Marcus Allen, Ruben Gonzalez and Miriam Jaffe, a former chief of staff to Hertzberg. “This was done on a volunteer basis and involved no city resources,” he said. According to Wilcox, he and his fellow staffers took two vacation days each to attend the meetings with the four mayoral candidates. Republican candidate Walter Moore was not invited to attend those meetings. Wilcox could not say exactly how much time his fellow staffers devoted to the project in their off hours. He offered to share time sheets to prove they had been vigilant in avoiding use of city time. But what about Chick? Isn’t she a city resource — not to mention the work product she has generated in support of her audits over the years? “The controller does not take vacation time,” said Wilcox, explaining that elected officials are not required to clock in or out like regular city employees. “She’s on the clock 24/7. She’s on call all the time.” A spokesman for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo said Delgadillo has not formulated an opinion on Chick’s claim to privacy, causing some to wonder: What if Rocky took the substance of three years’ worth of his office’s investigations home with him and invited the candidates over for a customized presentation? Council members Miscikowski, Tony Cardenas and Greig Smith, members of the Budget and Finance Committee, did not return calls for comment. Meantime, the motion to create and fund an investigative unit in Chick’s office is headed back to the Budget and Finance Committee. Chick and a number of council members are asking for three full-time employees to aid her in her pursuit of fraud and abuse in city government. The proposal would cost $146,000 this year and $307,000 next year. (The proposal also directs the chief legislative analyst to work with the city attorney to draft a resolution for whistleblower protection — even for those who use a city computer to make a report.) Perhaps as they deliberate, council members will picture Chick meeting secretly with their opponents in future elections to discuss her findings regarding their performance, or the actions of their allies. “They’ve got to be worried about some sort of star chamber,” a state lawmaker quipped, noting that three of the four candidates who met with Chick are sitting elected officials — two of them, Parks and Villaraigosa, as city councilmen. “If a few more officials met at her house, she could have a Brown Act violation.”


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