City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo suffered one last humiliation on his way out the door last week, when the City Council squashed his scheme to pack incoming City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s senior staff with Delgadillo’s cronies.
By his final act, Delgadillo made sure he left everyone a memento of his personal and political style: the too-clever-by-half, look-for-the-loophole style that marred his eight years as the city’s top prosecutor.
Despite his Highland Park-to-Harvard pedigree, political consultants say the man who once harbored presidential ambitions — his inner circle once called itself Team 1600 — and says he is definitely taking a second run at the post of California attorney general, faces an uphill battle.
Delgadillos’s two terms in City Hall were tarnished by backroom deals with billboard-industry lawyers, which fueled the billboard plague; political failure when he prematurely ran for attorney general; and credibility issues over his padded résumé and his family’s blatant misuse of official city cars.
The decisions he made and his stumbling explanations prompted the Los Angeles Times to formally call for his resignation in 2007. Several days ago, he brushed it all aside.
“I own my mistakes,” Delgadillo tells L.A. Weekly. “I’ve learned and grown from them. I’ve made amends. I’m stronger for them.”
Asked if he had any regrets over the controversies and criticisms heaped on him during the past eight years, Delgadillo couldn’t think of anything.
“When people in positions like mine take risks to protect the public, taking on the gangs and taking on the insurance companies, there will be others who try to take you down,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we didn’t back down from anybody.”
Termed out of office, he is leaving behind a successor stink-bomb disguised as a welcome-wagon present. The 49-year-old drew widespread scorn for his unusual decision to give job tenure to most of his top aides, thus forcing the newly elected city attorney, Trutanich, to rely on Delgadillo loyalists instead of his own picks, just as the city is facing a historic deficit and hiring freeze.
“It’s unprecedented, it’s shameful, it’s unprofessional, and it’s clearly designed to make life more difficult for his successor,” Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, Trutanich’s top supporter, tells the Weekly. “I’ve never seen anything like it … never heard of anything like it.”
The City Council stepped in at the 11th hour on June 23, with a special funding plan to let Trutanich hire seven senior aides at a cost of $1.2 million. That didn’t resolve the issue of Delgadillo sticking Trutanich with job-protected workers in senior positions — and it added to the city’s huge deficit by duplicating several senior positions.
The Council condemned Delgadillo’s scheme as contemptuous of taxpayers and subverting the clear intent of the City Charter, with Councilman Richard Alarcon calling it “political gaming at its worst,” and Councilman Dennis Zine contending that Delgadillo had “abused the City Charter by locking those positions in.”
Then the very next day, the City Council spent a full hour extravagantly praising Delgadillo at a goodbye session that enraged many onlookers. For his part, Delgadillo insists the tenure he quietly handed to his inner circle would help taxpayers. “The city is fortunate to have these talented, skilled people staying on,” he says. “That’s why they were put on a tenure track.”
Trutanich doesn’t want those kind of favors, telling the Weekly that Delgadillo needs to ask all the political appointees placed on the tenure track to sign resignation letters. Says Trutanich: “I hope that Rocky will think it over and do the honorable thing.”
If Delgadillo balks, the City Attorney’s office is set up for an employment nightmare. Delgadillo’s director of communications, Nick Velasquez, has been put on a tenure track at $118,000 a year and says he expects Trutanich to find a suitable spot for him and his salary even though he is not a lawyer.
“I’m prepared to do whatever Mr. Trutanich wants me to do,” Velasquez says. “But I hope he uses all of us to our maximum effectiveness. …Otherwise it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Trutanich says he is perplexed over how to handle such an unprecedented and unwanted situation. “That’s like Barack Obama walking into the White House and finding Karl Rove waiting for him,” he says. “I want to appoint my own press secretary. How am I going to do that with a press secretary making that kind of money already in the office? It’s a waste of government money.”
Delgadillo insists his move was not unprecedented and had Velasquez e-mail the Weekly a list of senior personnel he says were holdovers from the previous city attorney, James Hahn.
But Trutanich dismissed the comparison as apples and oranges. “Most of those people have been in that office 20, 30, even 40 years,” he says. “There’s never been anything like what Rocky is trying to do, from Jim Hahn or any other city attorney.”
In fact, a survey by the Weekly of other large cities, including San Diego and San Francisco, reveals that top aides in the city attorney’s office do not receive tenure and routinely leave when the politician who brought them in leaves office.
“The only ones who gets tenure here are a few support staff, like typists and secretaries,” says Matt Dorsey, press secretary for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
Trutanich pledged not to try anything similar when he leaves. “No one I’m bringing in for a senior position is on a tenure track, nor will they be put on a tenure track,” he says. “Our transition team is making sure of that.”
While Trutanich got a classic Rocky welcome, the Weekly learned that Mayor Antonio Villaragosa, who showered his help on the losing candidate for city attorney, Jack Weiss, has gone out of his way to make Trutanich feel welcome. The reconciliation started with a surprise phone call the day after the election.
“The mayor called and said ‘I gotta admit I rode the wrong pony,’” Trutanich recalls. “I said ‘Everybody gets a mulligan.’”
The phone call soon turned from an exchange of mixed metaphors into something of a political love fest.
“He said, ‘I think your heart wants what’s best for L.A., so we will have no problems,’” Trutanich recalls. “I told him I understand the difference between friendship and taking care of business for the people.”
The vibe got so warm and fuzzy that the mayor said he was coming down to San Pedro to personally congratulate him, and Trutanich directed him to a barbecue he was attending as the guest of honor at a portside warehouse.
A half-hour later the mayor pulled up in his black SUV. “It was like Daniel entering the lion’s den,” Trutanich says. “There were old newspapers on the table, tins of half-eaten salad, lamb and salmon on the grill, and Jack Daniels bottles everywhere.”
The two men, fierce political rivals 24 hours before, sat down at a rickety old card table and shared cigars over two bottles of Dos Equis. His friends came over, the cell phones came out, and soon 30 of Trutanich’s buddies — working men like John Papadakis, owner of the Papadakis Tavern — had pictures partying with the mayor and the new city attorney.
“I have to admit we started toasting each other,” Trutanich recalled. “There was some great bonding going on. I actually feel a lot closer to the mayor now. I realized we’re both hard-working guys from pretty humble backgrounds.”
But he admitted he got in one little victory-lap dig at the mayor. “I told him, ‘Six months ago you thought I was a woman, didn’t you?’” he said. “He admitted when he first heard the name Carmen Trutanich, he did.”
As the mayor left, Trutanich offered him the ultimate in male bonding.
“I told him, ‘You can call me Nuch.’”