One of the raps against James Hahn, when he was mayor of Los Angeles, was his lack of charisma. He had neither the glib schmoozability of Richard Riordan, nor the where’s-the-spotlight egoism of the man who unseated him, Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn was, in the words of one ally, “too judicial,” a smart, steady bureaucrat unable to inspire the masses.
That was not all that caused the extremely rare ousting of an incumbent mayor of Los Angeles in 2005. There was also the specter of scandal. Hahn’s administration toppled amid a swirl of election year allegations involving “pay-to-play” access to City Hall — the notion that under-the-table cash bought favors — and disclosures that public-relations giant Fleishman-Hillard, which was seen as closely connected to Hahn’s office, had benefited by grossly over-billing the city for providing PR services.
Journalists had a field day covering the mess — in particular the Los Angeles Times, which conveniently ignored its own substantial newsroom links to the embattled PR agency. In the end, no charges were filed against Hahn, and evidence emerged that the furor against him may have been greatly exaggerated, probably for political reasons.
The fraudulent over-billing by Fleishman-Hillard was eventually determined by a federal judge to be $529,000 — hefty, but orders of magnitude lower than the $4.2 million figure floated by Hahn’s political enemies, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Controller Laura Chick. (Chick’s office today points out that she never claimed that $4.2 million was fraudulent, only “questionable” or lacking full documentation.)
One public official in Hahn’s Administration was convicted, but over a different matter. Commissioner Leland Wong, a City Hall lifer who also served under Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan, was convicted this year on 14 felony counts for taking bribes from Evergreen Marine to help the firm get a good deal on its port lease. Wong was sentenced in October to five years in the state hoosegow.
Less than a month later, Hahn got what many felt he deserved: an appointment by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Los Angeles Superior Court.
The 58-year-old Hahn will take the oath on Dec. 5, marking the redemption of a man who surely lost control of some of his underlings but who never, according to many knowledgeable insiders, compromised his integrity.
“Universally, even his opponents would say he’s a decent, honest guy,” says Hahn’s former chief of staff Tim McOsker, who kept watch over the intensive process used by the governor and California Bar Association to screen judicial candidates. “I myself heard from maybe 100 people who told me they had gotten evaluation forms for Jim ... and all of them said wonderful things.”
McOsker adds, “He doesn’t need a restoration or vindication.”
Before he was mayor, Hahn was city attorney for a record 16 years, during which he avoided the kinds of endless controversies in which Delgadillo is mired. Ira Reiner, the city attorney before Hahn, says, “Once you get past the political blather, I don’t think there was anyone who questioned Jim Hahn’s character. There were clearly problems in that administration, but it wasn’t Jim Hahn.”
Hahn could not be reached for comment, but friends say he is extremely pleased by the appointment, which he had sought. In fact, favorable reviews reportedly were submitted to the Bar by the two mayoral candidates who won extensive TV face time in 2005 for slamming him — Villaraigosa, and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who finished third for mayor.
Hertzberg, speaking by cell phone from Wales, where he is working on a renewable energy project, says he gave Hahn a “very glowing review.”
Hertzberg says he does not hold Hahn responsible for wrongdoing by Fleishman-Hillard or by Wong, saying Hahn’s shortcomings were “a management issue, not an issue of morality.”
During the race, Hertzberg vociferously attacked Hahn’s leadership. “I was a big critic,” he recalls. Hahn failed to oust the sleazy City Hall fixture, Wong, whom two past mayors had also kept around. “If there are people around ... doing things that affect the common good, you have to take issue.”
The Wong scandal reached directly into the mayor’s office, as Hahn’s deputy mayor, Troy Edwards, was granted immunity to testify about how Wong illegally sought leasing breaks for Evergreen shipping lines in exchange for Lakers tickets and sexual favors. Hahn, on the stand this year, denied any knowledge of the graft.
As to the PR over-billings, Fleishman-Hillard executive Doug Dowie, a former managing editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, was convicted in 2006 on a dozen counts of over-billing the Department of Water and Power for PR services, a conviction Dowie has appealed.
From the moment Dowie emerged as a central figure, Hahn’s name was blackened in news stories — entirely by association. Dowie had donated to Hahn, but he had donated to many politicos. Dowie had been seen with Hahn at public events, but so had hundreds of civic and business figures, including Hahn’s rivals and critics — a common political practice.
Yet in the white-hot election cycle, the media seized on that thin evidence to create the impression Hahn and Dowie were close.
Bill Carrick, the political consultant who tried to defend Hahn from a storm of innuendo, says, “Dowie was being portrayed as a political confidant who was getting [PR] contracts because he knew Hahn personally — and there was no truth to that.” Dowie “had almost no private contact with him, period.”
Some point to a $5.7 million settlement paid to the city by Fleishman-Hillard as proof that the firm took millions from City Hall. But the trial revealed the actual fraud to be one-tenth that, and the $5.7 million now looks to some like the firm’s business cost — of buying back its name.
Dowie remains bitter and outspoken. On the widely read blogsite Patterico’s Pontifications (www.patterico.com), written by an L.A. County prosecutor, Dowie’s attorney, Michael Faber, posted a letter in August pointing out that L.A. Times’ coverage failed to disclose the paper’s tight links to key players in the drama— an editorial omission now considered a journalistic no-no at some newspapers.
Faber fumes over the role of former Times editor Fred Muir, who had taken a job at Fleishman-Hillard, where he clashed with Dowie. Muir quietly helped Times reporters prepare the Page One story that broke the scandal, Faber writes. At least two other former Times editors were also involved, directly or indirectly, with Fleishman-Hillard, the attorney adds. Muir, now at the marketing firm of Burson-Marsteller, declined to comment.
Despite Hahn’s placid exterior, he suffered enormous anguish, as the scandal began to bring down his administration.
“He was frustrated, very distraught,” says Carrick, who recalls Hahn venting in private over false information that kept surfacing in the Times and other papers — seemingly out of nowhere. “It was coming at [him] from blind spots. There was so little about it that was true, it was impossible to deal with.”
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But the damage created the opening Villaraigosa needed. James Hahn became the first L.A. mayor ousted after just one term by voters since 1933, when Mayor John Porter was blamed for the city’s economic collapse. “The question is, would [Hahn] have had serious opposition if that wasn’t kicking around?” Carrick says. “At the time, Antonio Villaraigosa was wrestling with whether he would run or not.”
Some observers believe Hahn lost because he upset his San Fernando Valley voter base by successfully turning back Valley Secession, and at the same time lost his longtime black base over a single decision: dropping black Police Chief Bernard Parks for a white replacement, William Bratton.
“He knew there had to be a change [from Parks to Bratton], and he made the change at great political cost to himself,” says former police commissioner and uber mall developer Rick Caruso, who recently abandoned his own thoughts of taking on Villaraigosa for the mayor’s seat.
Caruso sees Hahn’s act of political hara-kiri in dumping Parks as evidence that Hahn was not primarily driven by racial or other political winds, a trait prized in judges. “I think he’ll be terrific as a judge,” Caruso says. “He’s always been regarded as a very stand-up, moral kind of guy. That’s my view of him.”