|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
City Controller Laura Chick called each of Mayor Jim Hahn’s challengers to her home last week for private briefings on the City Hall corruption scandal, the L.A. Weekly has learned.
Chick presented a lengthy memo and her understanding of how Hahn’s administration allegedly used PR juggernaut Fleishman Hillard to generate campaign contributions in exchange for city contracts, among other topics.
“I thought it was a great idea,” said Chick, who recently withdrew her endorsement of Hahn for re-election. She has yet to endorse one of his challengers. “We wanted to find a way on our own time to provide the potential new leader of our city with what we know. Obviously we couldn’t do it on city time.”
Chick said her top deputies suggested the idea to meet with the candidates and volunteered to use vacation time in developing and presenting the memo, which she said is derived entirely from information available to the public through her office or news archives.
Two of the challengers, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and ex Speaker of the Assembly Bob Hertzberg, said the meetings were off the record and that they would be breaking the ground rules set by Chick if they talked about the matter. Hertzberg further declined to discuss the memo — but also declined to deny its existence. “I’ll talk to you about that later,” he said. Villaraigosa, accompanied by his campaign manager Ace Smith, told the Weekly’s editorial board: “Oh you knew about that?” Villaraigosa, however, declined to answer questions about the meeting or the memo. “I’m not at liberty to discuss it,” he said, when pressed for details. “Laura spoke confidentially to us and if she wants to share with you she can do that. I agreed to the rules, and if that’s bothersome to you then I’m sorry.
“Most of it is public, I think,” he continued. “It was like a good government lecture more than anything,” Smith added, “honestly.”
Government ethics experts called the move unusual. Several defended Chick’s use of her private time to enrich the public debate about the Hahn administration, which is under state and federal investigation. Former Hahn deputy Troy Edwards is part of that investigation, along with former Hahn commissioners Ted Stein and Leland Wong and former Fleishman chief Doug Dowie. Last month, former Fleishman VP John Stodder was indicted on 11 counts of wire fraud, in an alleged scheme to pad PR bills paid by the Department of Water and Power.
“It’s a political act, an attempt to get information to people with the skill and the voice to make that information public,” says Xandra Kayden, senior fellow at UCLA’s School of Public Policy and Social Research. “I think she’s doing it for the good of the city, and at some risk to herself, knowing that Hahn has the capacity for retribution.”
Said Raphael Sonenshein, one of the drafters of the revised City Charter and an expert on governmental reform: “I think Chick has effectively used the authority conferred on her by the new Charter. This situation, however, raises questions for me. If there is information that the controller feels the public ought to have, then that information should be brought before the public. The issue is transparency. Even with the best intentions, open public discussions rather than private meetings has to be the way to go.”
Chick turned down a request to share the memo, which, according to sources who have seen it, is 12 pages of bullet points — not on city letterhead — with her conclusions about Hahn’s administration: that his commissioners presided over the revenue-generating airport, harbor, and water and power departments in a systematic way, overseeing contract awards and soliciting campaign contributions from those contractors, while the mayor received free services and advice from Fleishman Hillard. “I gave this information to the candidates to use it as they see fit,” she said.
State Senator Richard Alarcón said that Chick contacted him two weeks ago to invite him to her house for the briefing, which was conducted by her and her deputies Rob Wilcox, Marcus Allen, Ruben Gonzalez and Miriam Jaffe, a former chief of staff to Hertzberg. The meeting lasted an hour and half, Alarcón said. “Her focus is on the strategic use of PR counsel to not only extract benefits for Hahn at the expense of the city, but to deflect her efforts to get to the bottom of it,” he said. “I think most of the information is available elsewhere, but it’s how the memo is put together that shows how the controller and her staff are spinning it.”
Alarcón turned down a request to share the memo, as did City Councilman Bernard Parks, who said he did not want to violate any confidences with Chick by doing so. “The briefing made me aware of facts I had not focused on because I haven’t reviewed her audits in their entirety,” Parks said on Monday. “I’ll use it to highlight the difference between what Hahn says and does.” Asked whether the memo reflected a unique understanding of the scandal by virtue of Chick’s role as city controller, he said, “The information is a public-records act away for anyone who wants it. But the comprehensive picture without the verbal input of her and her staff would not be as meaningful.”
George Kieffer, a partner at Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, said that the Charter Commission appointed by Hahn when he was city attorney struggled with expanding authority in the Controller’s Office precisely because of the potential for political involvement. “The controller has a special obligation to stay out of politics,” said Kieffer, a longtime Hahn supporter and chair of the appointed commission. “The benefit of having a powerful watchdog can be undermined if that person becomes too heady or involved with politics. It runs the risk of compromising the credibility of the office.”
Informed of the meetings, Hahn campaign manager Kam Kuwata said he is focused on winning an election. “Am I worried about Laura Chick handing out her opposition research?” he said. “No. This is the behavior we've come to expect from her. She wants attention from the public. I wish someone would tell me why she signed all the checks to Fleishman Hillard in the first place.”