OVER THE CHRISTMAS WEEKEND, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came out against L.A. Weekly with guns blazing, claiming our September 11 feature story “wasn’t true.” It was the mayor’s first public repudiation of our investigation into his work schedule. Titled “The All About Me Mayor,” the article disclosed that Villaraigosa had only spent 11 percent of his time on nuts-and-bolts city business between May 21 and July 30. The mayor’s slam occurred during an interview with Rick Orlov, a veteran political reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News, who noted in his story that our piece “still rankles” the man who’s now up for re-election.

Villaraigosa also told Orlov, “They [L.A. Weekly] were upset because we only gave them my public calendar. They didn’t get to see what I was doing privately, with meetings here [at City Hall] or in other places.

“Everyone who knows me knows I work hard. That’s why both Sen. Clinton and Obama wanted me to campaign for them.”

Now the Mayor’s Office is backing down from some of those comments, with Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo telling the Weekly that his boss “misspoke.”

The most alarming statement made by Villaraigosa is that the Mayor’s Office “only gave [the Weekly] my public calendar. They didn’t get to see what I was doing privately, with meetings here [at City Hall] or in other places.” Those words lead one to think that Villaraigosa has two work schedules — one for the public, and another that’s kept tucked away from any kind of scrutiny.

Szabo now says Villaraigosa got that wrong.

“On that specific issue,” Szabo says, “the mayor misspoke. We provided the Weekly with the mayor’s one and only calendar.”

Villaraigosa blacked out some of his schedule before giving it to the Weekly, with all the redacted areas described by Szabo as covering three categories of activity Villaraigosa did not have to disclose, in his opinion: security issues, personal and family time and fund-raising.

In response, the Weekly tracked down almost all of the blacked-out fund-raising hours independently. That left a fairly small amount of blacked-out time, which Szabo reconfirmed on December 29 was entirely taken up by personal time, family time, security issues and fund-raising.

Asked on December 29, three days after Villaraigosa slammed the Weekly, if the mayor’s schedule failed to include “private” meetings involving actual city business, as Villaraigosa claimed, Szabo says Villaraigosa is once again incorrect. “The mayor misspoke” to the Daily News, Szabo says. “Every official meeting was listed on his calendar.”

With Szabo, the Weekly went through Villaraigosa’s attack sentence by sentence. The spokesman continually pushed the line that Villaraigosa is the “hardest-working mayor in America.” But when asked if he could point to anything that “wasn’t true” in our piece, the spokesman said he didn’t want to go through our long September cover story “line by line.” Szabo then immediately threw out his standard spin: “Mayor Villaraigosa works harder and longer than any other big-city mayor in America, and everyone in Los Angeles knows it.”

Fred Siegel, professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York City, strongly disagrees. He is an authority on the key urban issues facing U.S. cities, and author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America’s Big Cities. Siegel says, “Villaraigosa is not someone who comes to mind when you think of the hardest-working mayors.”

Siegel describes Villaraigosa’s reputation as that of “ceremonial mayor,” and cites Richard Daley of Chicago, Thomas Menino of Boston and Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, as the hardest-working mayors in the country. “Booker lives at City Hall and works tirelessly on delivering city services,” says Siegel, “which is the nuts-and-bolts work of a mayor.”

Villaraigosa also told the Daily News that our feature story “didn’t go anywhere,” implying that the public was not outraged by “The All About Me Mayor” and that other news outlets did not pick up the piece. In fact, the story was widely disseminated and has become a regular point of discussion in opinion pieces about the mayor in other media and other cities.

Talk-radio hosts John and Ken on KFI 640 AM devoted 45 minutes to the piece, reading excerpts from it. Doug McIntyre on KABC 790 AM spent more than one segment ripping into the mayor and mentioning the Weekly story to his listeners. The Daily News and Los Angeles Times both blogged about our findings, as did several well-established watchdog and city-oriented blogs, including Mayor Sam (at mayorsam.blogspot.com), CityWatch (at citywatchla.com) and Fishbowl L.A. (at www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlla). Readers left more than 150 comments on the Weekly Web site about the article and its sidebar, “How Mayor Villaraigosa Spends His 16-hour Days.” Dozens of personal e-mails were sent to this writer, all of them appreciative of the Weekly’s work. Quite a few of those e-mails were extremely tough on Villaraigosa.

“As many others noted above,” wrote an anonymous person on the Weekly’s Web site, “we had been waiting & waiting for a media outlet to publish the full nauseating details of what many of us had observed for a long time.” The writer went on to call Villaraigosa a “self-obsessed narcissist” with little interest in improving the quality of life in Los Angeles.

The feature story provoked a great deal of criticism of the mayor and has become a part of his less-than-effusive Wikipedia page. The reaction to our exposé clearly showed that not “everyone” in Los Angeles believes Villaraigosa is the hardest-working mayor in big-city politics.

When asked if the Weekly investigation “still rankles” the mayor, Szabo says it does, “to the extent that the article drew false conclusions about the mayor’s work ethic.”

Villaraigosa, who’s gearing up for a re-election campaign, with the possibility of running for governor in 2010 and leaving the mayoralty if his long-shot odds pay off, also claimed to the Daily News that people at the Weekly became “upset” during the news-gathering process that led to the story’s publication, and that this anger caused the paper to exaggerate how little real work he does.

In fact, during the news-gathering process, no one at the Weekly was “upset” about the information Villaraigosa provided on his mayoral work schedule or habits. It was actually Szabo and the mayor who were not happy with the Weekly. Szabo pressed an editor at the Weekly to show the Office of the Mayor the paper’s internal “methodology” in creating its categories of mayoral work, including one category we ultimately called “Gap Time” because it shows the enormous number of hours the mayor spends rushing from one banquet or promotional event to another.

If the Weekly showed the Office of the Mayor its reporting methodology, Szabo told Weekly news editor Jill Stewart, the newspaper would be given a chance to interview the mayor. Szabo claimed on the phone to Stewart that if Villaraigosa made the same offer to the Los Angeles Times, that paper would take him up on it. After refusing the offer, Stewart stated her disbelief that the Times would cut any such deal.

The story is now a key part of a public record that shows Villaraigosa to be focused heavily on himself. On January 1, the Times editorial board published its 2009 wish list, in which it hoped “that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would say, ‘But enough about me. Let’s talk about Los Angeles.’” To date, in its news pages, the Times has not taken a serious look at Villaraigosa’s transformation of the Office of the Mayor into a promotional tool.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

LA Weekly