THE FAREWELL ORATORY of Martin Ludlow, the former Los Angeles City Councilman who reached the peak of the county’s labor union hierarchy only to be toppled by an ethics investigation, was in many ways a public relations triumph.

Ludlow — dogged by a multi-agency probe of his 2003 council campaign and the union money that funded it — delivered a thundering speech in which he apologized, claimed responsibility and spoke of his pending redemption, all without stating what his transgressions actually were.

The performance was hailed by a Greek chorus of union leaders who stood behind their leader, clapping and chanting, “Si se puede.” Always a gifted public speaker, Ludlow bade goodbye as executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and offered his support to his longtime political ally, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“He is my hermano grande. I love him dearly,” Ludlow declared. “And Mayor Villaraigosa will be just fine.”

Well, that’s good to know. But this event wasn’t about the mayor. Or was it? Few believe that Ludlow would have scored the County Fed job if Villaraigosa thought it was a terrible idea. And no one knows which politicians, if any, are under scrutiny in the probe of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents 30,000 public school workers and has helped dozens of politicians over the years.

Since that stirring resignation speech, the tale of Ludlow has produced another, less upbeat storyline — one that is at odds with the unified front shown at AFL-CIO headquarters. Ludlow’s allies in labor and elsewhere portrayed him as a departing visionary who would one day rise again. But for many who experienced him at City Hall, Ludlow was simply another disappointing politician who never quite lived up to his billing.

The gulf between those two views, and the debate over the Ludlow legacy, exposed one of the less flattering aspects of Los Angeles local government — the divide between the publicly spoken message and the privately held truth.

Publicly, Ludlow’s allies in the unions and elsewhere described his downfall as part of a campaign to destroy a movement that crushed Gov. Arnold Schwarzen-egger’s slate of ballot measures last year. Privately, more than a few council members, legislative aides and even mayoral staffers told a different story, saying Ludlow’s two-year stint on the council was lackluster at best, disastrous at worst. In their view, Ludlow carved a destructive, if well-intentioned, path — winning a council seat that rarely engaged him, abruptly taking a job after only two years in office that left his district without representation for seven months, contributing to the legal woes of one union and, now, leaving the region’s most powerful labor organization scrambling for a new leader.

Perhaps the only person to go public with his dismay was communications consultant David Hamlin, who lives in the 10th District — the heart of Los Angeles — and worked for Ludlow’s opponent during the 2003 election. Hamlin flatly argued that Ludlow handled his campaign in a way that had a corrosive effect on the election.

If Ludlow received $50,000 in prohibited union funds during the campaign, Hamlin argued, he then had the power to spend $50,000 for other, much-needed campaign expenses.

“My suspicion is that the race would have been a whole lot tighter” without the unreported union funds, he said. “It might well have gone the other way if there had not been these under-the-table resources available.”

To many of his peers at City Hall, Ludlow had shown little interest in the drudgery that comes with representing the 10th District, from responding to constituent phone calls to addressing the avalanche of mundane requests like removal of an illegally dumped couch. Staff turnover in his office was not uncommon. Just scheduling a meeting was an uphill climb. On some days, callers had trouble getting a live person to pick up the phone.

When labor leader Miguel Contreras died in May 2005, Ludlow jumped in as the heir apparent, fueling rumors that he was trying to stay one step ahead of a federal corruption probe. After all, Ludlow took the job just three months after the Los Angeles Times reported that he was being investigated over his involvement in contracting decisions at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Then there were the whispers that Ludlow was somehow connected to the problems at SEIU Local 99.

“For him to make that move — it’s the height of arrogance, as though he was thinking, ‘I’ll just move to a more powerful position,’?” said one high-level city official, who would not be identified.

Ludlow attorney Stephen Kaufman would not discuss his client’s legal situation, nor would he comment on the dynamics of the 2003 campaign, the investigation or Ludlow’s career path. But Ludlow allies countered that the former councilman is being singled out for standard-issue misdeeds — failing to report at least $53,000 in support from SEIU Local 99, which came in the form of workers, phone-banking and other assistance, according to unnamed sources cited by the Los Angeles Times.

Minutes after Ludlow announced his resignation, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez — also a Villaraigosa ally — circulated a statement questioning whether Ludlow was a target of “overzealous prosecutors.” One of Villaraigosa’s commission appointees went further, saying Ludlow’s resignation had “swirled the beehive” of labor leaders.

“There are people that are incensed about the charges, the extent to which the opposition has gone to undermine the labor union,” said the Rev. Lewis Logan, who serves on the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, which oversees the city’s neighborhood councils. “They see it as an effort to undermine and destroy and dismantle the labor movement.”

RANK-AND-FILE MEMBERS of SEIU Local 99 were considerably less charitable on Saturday, as they trickled out of a meeting devoted to their union’s complicated future. Like Ludlow, the union that represents janitors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers had been placed under a legal cloud, with investigations by multiple agencies and nearly two years operating under a nationally chosen trustee.

Despite the presence of balloons and handmade posters with messages like “Strength” and “Accountability,” members of SEIU Local 99 voiced frustration over the union’s unresolved issues, from a demand for health care for more of its workers to the federal investigation into its phone-banking trucks, which were created by the union amid allegations of financial impropriety. Some argued that SEIU Local 99 had become too focused on electing candidates, while others said Ludlow had only exacerbated the union’s legal woes.

“I never thought he was a strong leader in the first place,” said Ruby Mary Price, a Head Start worker who argued that the legal problems have left SEIU Local 99 in “chaos.”

“What did he do but march, take a picture and look cute?” added Price, a resident of Leimert Park. “He wasn’t a good councilman when he was in the 10th, either. All we knew was that he was always by Villaraigosa, just standing behind him grinning.”

Left unmentioned was the fact that Ludlow has not yet left his job. One week after he gave his stirring speech, Federation of Labor spokeswoman Mary Gutierrez said Ludlow will remain on the payroll until a successor is chosen. The next meeting to discuss a replacement is scheduled for Friday.

Ludlow’s last job change — from elected office to the County Fed — left his district with a caretaker, the city’s chief legislative analyst, who provides policy guidance to the council. Councilman Herb Wesson won that seat in November, and immediately hired as his chief deputy Deron Williams — the man Ludlow defeated in 2003.

Williams once looked like the guy who would win the council seat in 2003. During that primary election, he led a pack of candidates with 39 percent of the vote — 11 points shy of the amount needed to avoid a runoff. Ludlow, in turn, had 26 percent — a showing fueled in part by the so-called “phantom employees” supplied by SEIU Local ,according to sources familiar with the campaign.

Williams had badly handled questions about his 1988 conviction on drug charges, a situation that doomed his runoff campaign. Ludlow, by contrast, found a way to overcome doubts about his mixed record, including a 1998 bankruptcy filing that featured a lengthy list of unpaid bills, including one to the Department of Water and Power.

Hamlin, the communications consultant, acknowledged that he has no way of knowing for sure whether the SEIU funds would have swayed the election, and the possibility is undermined somewhat by the fact that Ludlow spent a huge sum in that primary election — $490,000.

Regardless, Ludlow’s second-place showing in the primary paved the way for his runoff victory, setting off a domino effect in the district and throughout labor circles. He became a target of federal prosecutors as councilman and then left the district entirely. SEIU Local 99 is in disarray — only in part because of the 2003 Ludlow campaign — and the County Fed is without a leader, for now.

For Hamlin, however, the core issue is the candidate’s behavior.

“The guy really did rob the district of a fair election. However we want to play the election, the process had been queered by one of the candidates getting resources that the other candidate not only didn’t have, but didn’t know about,” Hamlin said.

“I’m not going to wring my hands when he gets busted for that,” he added. “?‘Poor Martin’ — bullshit. Poor voters.”

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