Big lies are perfect for people who can't handle the facts. Since they appeal to the lazy mind, big lies can go far. How easy it is to say that Steven Spielberg wants to build DreamWorks on endangered wetlands - it's not true, but it carries the validity of myth.
Big lies are usually born in darkness, far from public attention. I'd never been present at one's birth. And I could not have imagined that the man who'd deliver it would be council President John Ferraro, right on the City Council floor.
Big John is a likable guy with a keen sense of humor that he uses deftly to keep meetings tolerable. After 30 years on the council, he's the city's senior elected official. A football hall-of-famer, he looks the way most men would want to look in their 70s. He takes his civic umpire's job seriously, and rarely hands over his gavel to speak as a member; when he does, he usually has something important to say.
So you have to ask yourself: What on earth does he owe to Ted Stein that he so traduced the truth to defend Tedzilla last week against the detailed allegations in Controller Rick Tuttle's report, which finally came before the council a full year after it was first released?
In 1994, as Airports Commission president, Stein surreptitiously hired former Clinton crony Webb Hubbell for nearly $25,000 to lobby on behalf of the city for a $58 million federal airport funding transfer. According to Tuttle's own report, Hubbell actually took the assignment with the understanding that he would not bill "by the hour or on an itemized basis." (After all, it was his spurious billings at the Rose Law Firm that were soon to send him to prison.) The agreed-upon $49,000 maximum Hubbell was originally to be paid by the airports fell just under the $50,000 threshold at which the Airports Commission would have to be informed of his hiring. Stein's August 16, 1994, letter confirming Hubbell's employment was apparently prepared in the Mayor's Office, but - against city regulations - no official copy exists.
What did Hubbell actually do? According to Tuttle, "Hubbell's only contact with a [Department of Transportation] official was two five-minute conversations with the general counsel at DOT, Stephen Kaplan." According to Kaplan, the $58 million that finally came the city's way had nothing to do with Hubbell. In December 1994, Stein fired Hubbell after he decided to plead out on felony charges. Eight months later, after the controller rejected Hubbell's original payment request, airports manager Jack Driscoll assisted "Hubbell to create supporting documents" to persuade Tuttle to pay the confessed felon $24,750 for the work "done" for the airports. By the time the check was cut, Hubbell was in prison. Subsequent investigation revealed that "airport staff back-dated [their] approval of Hubbell's invoices to make it appear that they had been approved before it was reported Hubbell intended to plead guilty."
Tuttle's report also pointed to the fact that Stein, either as commission president or as a deputy to the mayor, had no authority to hire lawyers and lobbyists. The report recommended, among other things, that Stein's role in the mess be officially noted.
Ferraro and his minions were having none of it. On Wednesday last, in a speech beginning with the amazingly counterfactual words "You can't revise history," council President John Ferraro of the 4th District took the floor and did his livid goddamnedest to murder it.
Ferraro's new account differed in every particular from the sworn testimony in the case. Not only had Stein done the right thing by hiring Hubbell, but according to Ferraro, it was Hubbell who actually got the city its $58 million.
Like any public fibber, Ferraro tested prevarication's waters before he dived in. Initially noting that the city "did get the $58 million transfer," Ferraro added cautiously, "I don't know what he [Hubbell] had to do with this."
But just seconds later, Ferraro suddenly knew. "We paid him $25,000 to get us $58 million; that seems like a pretty good deal." And there it was. In a single glib moment, Ferraro had turned the major known blot on Tedzilla's past into his greatest career achievement. All it took was a single bold, outright lie.
As for Tuttle's suggestion that it be noted that Stein's deportment reflected poorly on the city, Ferraro recommended, "The only responsible action is to end it [this idea] today."
Ferraro's version carried the day. Joel Wachs acknowledged the wrong done by Stein, but shied away from singling out Tedzilla "when the system was really at fault." Hey, did anyone get the make and model of that system that just ran over us? Or even its license number?
Ferraro, however, maintained the opposite: He claimed that the Hubbell deal showed how well the system worked. His most ludicrous ally was Rudy "Kazootie" Svorinich of the 15th District. Svorinich, whose grasp of language is as feeble as his ethical sense, said, "I find it incredulous that it took so long" for the controller's report to get before the council. (Tuttle submitted it in June of 1997.)
Besides the complaisant ineffectuals like Wachs, there were the sharp operators, such as Hal Bernson and Richard Alarcon, who found much to defend in Stein's actions. This is the way we want to do things, they said; let no one tell us not to. The victory over Tuttle's proposal that Stein be admonished was a victory of pure, self-serving immorality over honesty. For years, I've opposed Valley secessionists and others who want to undo the city. But last week, John Ferraro and his allies were poster children for the abolition of the present Los Angeles city government.
Members brave enough to stand against Ferraro included Ruth Galanter, who had authored the council recommendation that Stein be admonished, Rita Walters, Jackie Goldberg and Mike Feuer. Feuer recalled the argument of ends and means: Even if Hubbell had got the millions for the city, the way it was done was unconscionable. But Feuer was outside the ugly consensus, which oozed a stench you could cut with a cleaver, nine stories above the council chamber in City Hall East.
Now we have the prospect of the council's confirming Mayor Riordan's appointment of Ted Stein to the Harbor Commission, just as the agency moves to coordinate the execution of the $2.2 billion Alameda Corridor plans. The day after Stein's council vindication, Svorinich was appointed chair of the Alameda Corridor agency. Everyone ready for MTA II?
You may not go for Chief Bernie Parks' aggressive, flog-the-troops style, but he did the right thing when first he took office. He got cops out from behind their desks and onto the streets. Fewer papers were pushed; more bad guys got caught.
So it surprised me last week to see the chief haggling with a joint City Council committee for a multibuilding replacement that's twice the size of the LAPD's Parker Center headquarters. Figures were vague, but the new police pentagon was the heart of a $600-million-plus proposed bond issue that also included replacements for outlying stations.
Onlookers were calling the proposal "Parks Center." It seemed to me, however, that what was most wrong was not so much the egregious cost of the headquarters, but the probability that a double-size Parker Center would suck back downtown the officers Parks sent out to the field.
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In one respect, the chief prepared superbly for his presentation. Parks is by far the best-dressed Los Angeles police chief of the past 30 years. Daryl Gates, in his linen-jacket-and-tie mode, looked like a second-string Palm Desert golf pro. Willie Williams, and I'm speaking as one who's been there, had that CLR - clothier of last resort - look you get when you buy your suits off the middle of the rack at the Big and Tall Guys shop.
Parks, on the other hand, always looks right. Before the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Capital Improvements, he wore a three-piece, blue-stripe outfit that was at least as elegant as the suit British Prime Minister Anthony Eden wore back when he apologized to President Eisenhower for that little Suez-invasion misunderstanding.
Sadly, however, Parks lacked Lord Eden's diplomatic skills when it came to swaying elected officialdom. It's all necessary for law enforcement, he bluntly said, and patronized Councilwoman Rita Walters when she asked why the LAPD headquarters now needed its own 112-bed lockup, with two county jails just blocks away. Different needs, he admonished. Say what? Since when does the LAPD have its own criminal code?
Parks' sartorial elegance belied his apparent lack of political preparation. The committee flatly asked the chief for a cheaper proposal. But their coolness, it turned out, was the least of Parks' problems. The next day, Mayor Richard Riordan announced his support for a $160 million library bond issue that was on the same council committee meeting agenda. But Riordan, Parks' key backer, said he wouldn't support the bonds for the new Parks Center until Parks could show some public support for it. Sometimes, it seems, you have to do more than dress for success.