WHEN MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA vetoed a $2.7 million settlement to a black firefighter tricked into eating dog food, he took aim at key power players who were strangely eager to bury the racially potent dog-food tale — the Los Angeles City Council, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and snoozing local journalists.
On November 14, 12 members of the City Council viewed incendiary photographs of firefighter Tennie Pierce acting as a key instigator in outrageous hazing — forcing a water hose into the mouth of a strapped-down and bound firefighter in one photo, taunting a tightly bound firefighter whose sheetlike garment is scrawled with the words “Oy vey! I’m gay!” in another.
That day, San Fernando Valley–area Councilman Dennis Zine distributed the photos around the City Council’s “horseshoe,” where they sit during meetings. All had a chance to see what was perhaps the most personally humiliating image — Tennie Pierce grabbing and apparently shaving the bare testicles of a strapped-down, and firmly bound, firefighter.
The photos were not a surprise. They had been published on the KFI AM-640 Talk Radio Web site and turned over to KABC-TV. Yet, in a 6-6 vote, the City Council declined to reconsider the massive giveaway to Pierce that they had approved the previous week.
Six members of the council, including its three black members, refused to reconsider: Janice Hahn, Tom LaBonge, Bernard Parks, Jan Perry, Jack Weiss and Herb Wesson.
Zine, originally the lone vote against settling, found an ally in Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who formally made the November 14 motion to reconsider the $2.7 million payout. In an interview, Rosendahl took special aim at Delgadillo, saying his credibility is at “an all-time low . . . We didn’t have all the information to make an intelligent decision” before voting the first time, he said. “The media had the stuff, so why didn’t the city attorney do a proper investigation? This is obviously not a racial issue.”
With his boss being battered by the council, Chief Deputy City Attorney Rich Llewellyn has asked council members to allow transcripts of a November 8 closed-door discussion of the Pierce settlement to go public. “We want the council to waive the confidentiality so we can release the transcript and set the record straight,” said Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez. But Zine says Delgadillo failed to conduct a competent investigation, basing his original $2.7 million offer on “limited documents and no photographs.”
The mayoral veto was, in fact, only the latest sign that elected officials have lost confidence in Delgadillo’s legal team.
Rosendahl has two attorneys giving him independent legal guidance. Councilwoman Jan Perry hired a lawyer who successfully fought Villaraigosa’s bid to settle a lawsuit with the ACLU of Southern California, which wants to limit the LAPD’s ability to remove homeless encampments. Villaraigosa has his own lawyer, Thomas Saenz. And the full council placed its own lawyer in the Chief Legislative Analyst’s Office, Zine said.
Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, which mediates racial disputes in Los Angeles, says Delgadillo “routinely rolls over on cases like this.” Hicks slammed the council for “trying to top itself in political correctness . . . When something mildly smacks of racism, they get weak in the knees and will do anything necessary to make the situation go away.”
Parks disagreed, saying he has already voted on the settlement three times and found nothing in the photos to change his mind. “I’ve even gone on the right-wing talk-radio shows, and they haven’t convinced me,” said the former police chief.
Aside from the radio shows, where were the media during this incredible brouhaha in City Hall? The story went global, spun in other regions as a black eye for Los Angeles. And Zine and Rosendahl were hardly quiet about their disgust over the photos showing Pierce as a master hazer: They sent out two joint press releases decrying his payout, on November 14 and November 17.
Yet for nearly a week after the original story hit the papers — a tale of racist America making a black man eat dog food — the print media all but squelched the ensuing developments. The only hint of a brewing debacle was an almost invisible, 2-inch-long “brief” in the Los Angeles Times on November 15. For its part, the Los Angeles Daily News’ news pages were silent on the content of the Pierce photos, ignored Valley-based Zine’s protests on November 14, and finally, on November 18, published a vague story about “Pierce participating in some hazing incidents.”
Hicks says the print media largely buried the story, capitulating to political correctness: “The L.A. Times historically does a terrible job on these kinds of things. The Daily News did an editorial condemning the settlement, and there was a teeny [Times] article this past Wednesday . . . The coverage was literally buried.”
Now, the question is, how can Delgadillo rebuild his troubled relationship with city leaders, even as his office ?is hit with a plethora of additional lawsuits promised by Tennie Pierce’s clever ?lawyer?
Staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this story.