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Jail Time! - Or how to get higher-caliber L.A. public officials

Herewith a local conundrum: Why has no Los Angeles politician been arrested, sentenced and jailed for corruption for almost 60 years? Is it because, ever since the 1937 Frank Shaw scandals that dumped a mayor, a police chief and, ultimately, most of a City Council, they've all been so clean and respectable?

Or is it, as I increasingly suspect, that there's a kind of permanent, free-floating fix in someplace - a gentleperson's agreement in the spirit of "There but for the Grace of God Go We"? A collective awareness that all officeholders may now and then stumble, so let us therefore spare any undue impact for those who fall?

Such thoughts are occasioned by the unfolding case of Councilman Richard Alatorre, who admitted in a custody hearing last week to "borrowing" $12,000 from that slippery, members-only Eastside entity known as TELACU. This money paid for rebuilding the roof of his new Eagle Rock house. TELACU, the L.A. Times reported, was at that time in the process of negotiating a big contract with the city for a shopping center. TELACU got its contract.

No terms were set for the loan. Alatorre reportedly testified that he still owes on most of it. He is, happily, a very close and old friend of TELACU kingpin David Lizzaraga, for whom he has done favors beyond counting.

There are cities in which the word bribe might be used to describe that roofing transaction. In Los Angeles, the consensus seems to be: Hey, it's just another deal; wait and see where it goes. If nothing happens, we forget.

Actually, this may even be a California way of doing things, a state exceptionalism that's developed since the 1970s in the Legislature, too. Assembly members or senators on the verge of getting caught with their hands in the jar seem to get a choice: resign or face prosecution. Mostly, they resign. Only the most arrogant hard cases who have not stepped down - like Senators Paul Carpenter, Alan Robbins and Joe Montoya - end up facing the judicial music.

This is not the way it usually goes in Chicago, Philadelphia or New York. Where dirty politicians sometimes do go to jail. Where hundreds of millions of public dollars usually can't vanish without a trace, the way they did at the MTA, without someone convening a grand jury and searching out the perps. Where a contractor can't furtively shrink the walls of a subway tunnel without at least someone getting arrested.

But in today's Los Angeles, there is a practice that effectively condones the most obvious corruption under the presumption that this is just the way things go. It's a double tradition, actually, that comes complete with a very deep cognitive dissonance. It goes: "We have a much cleaner government here." And: "What can you expect from the scum we elect?"

Like many other local perceptions, this one reactively combines an ideal and a reality. The reaction simmers until the public finally gets a chance to even the score with such blunt instruments as the term limit. Which was, when you think of it, a kind of bill of attainder passed against California politicians in general. Of course, the restriction to a maximum eight years of office may just make bad officials hustle quicker.

As in the Senate and Assembly, we've also seen some sudden City Council midterm resignations by people whom the panel was better off without. But what criminal prosecutions have there been? For misdemeanor drug use in the case of Mike Hernandez and for drunk driving in the case of then-Councilman Art Snyder. Tiny little stuff. If Alan Robbins, who did some serious time for selling his vote in Sacramento, had only thought to run for a council seat 12 years ago, he'd probably still be representing the 3rd District.

Things can't have got so bad in this city without the connivance of some council members. Nor without the acquiescence of the majority who ignore the public interest when they vote for something - like putting Ted Stein on the Harbor Commission, or approving those dubious TELACU or Cordoba Corp. contracts - that is certain to cause a hell of a mess someday. Without, however, any of them being held accountable.

Occasional federal prosecution (a state prosecution? What state?) of council members might just constrain the behavior of the others. It would at least help them recall that they'd publicly voted for, maybe even spoken in favor of or seconded, some action that put a colleague in handcuffs. And just maybe they'd vote no the next time.

If you're a politician, the bust of a fellow pol reminds you that the world is round. If you're a voter, it saves you the trouble of voting someone out of office. If you are a federal attorney, it could make your reputation. Of course, that's the problem: It can only do that where such prosecutions are encouraged - something that does not seem to be the case here.

In a town that allegedly hates its City Council more than smog, there's a surprising public aversion to doing more than complaining about council-member wrongdoing. Note the ongoing federal-income-tax investigation of Alatorre, for instance. Alatorre's defenders complain that the Times is out to get Alatorre just because it has reported on the investigation. But if there's been commentary noting that the rascal looks like he's finally getting what's coming to him, I haven't seen it in print.

That would be an unfriendly thing to say. And with all their prominence, not to mention their clout, Los Angeles council members have many friends - some of them in Washington. Is this why the U.S. attorney has hitherto stayed out of City Hall? Maybe. But then, this prosecutorial aversion extends through most of the county. When you think about it, tough federal prosecutions of Southern California city officials have largely been limited to - hey, surprise! - the black-governed city of Compton.

Neil, Neil, Banana Peel!

Soaring over the new City Council chamber last Wednesday was that familiar basset-horn voice, authoritative, jaded, brimming with the confidence that only the insidest of insiders can flaunt.

Yes, this was the song of power attorney Neil Papiano, advocating yet another unworthy cause. Papiano was speaking for one of the several parking-lot firms that were challenging the award of an airport piracy - I mean parking - contract to Five Star Parking, one of their competitors. Five Star had made what seemed to Papiano an unforgivable blunder. It had underbid the competition by $12 million. So Papiano and the other lobbyists tried to prove that Five Star could only deliver service at this price by nefarious means. Like skimping on the city's requisite living wage.

They almost pulled it off. Overturning the Five Star deal required 10 council votes; Papiano and Co. came up with just nine. Close enough, one would imagine, for Papiano to collect his lobbying fees in good conscience.

But wait. Here's a tricky detail: Papiano isn't really a lobbyist. It isn't that he doesn't lobby. In addition to the parking firm, he has represented the Daily Journal legal newspaper, cab companies and even Ted Stein before the council and city agencies. But he hasn't registered to lobby with the Ethics Commission, as the law requires for anyone making more than $4,000 a quarter lobbying City Hall.

Papiano never returned my calls asking for an explanation, but according to Ethics Commission files, he's been told the rules. In December, the commission asked him to register, noting that he'd just represented the Journal before the council's Budget Committee. After a reminder in February, Papiano wrote a stuffy response, contending that registering as a "lobbyist" would "have a chilling effect on legal representation." After two more notices citing the state statute that compelled him to register, Papiano wrote on March 24, "I have not been paid $4,000 in any calendar quarter by [the Daily Journal]," as if the law said the threshold was for any one client per given quarter instead of applying - as it does - to all clients represented during the period. Papiano added, "We can revisit it at some other time if it ever becomes appropriate."

The commission hasn't written him since. But with Papiano's having lobbied just during the past month for both Stein and AMPCO, right now would be an appropriate time to revisit what his total lobbying fees per quarter really are.

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