Lest we had any nagging doubts about the sincerity of L.A. Times publisher Mark Willes' promise to “break down the wall” between advertising and editorial at the paper (“with a bazooka, if necessary,” he vowed), last Wednesday's Times reassured us. Wednesday, you will recall, was the day after the election, and a pretty big day in the news biz. And yet the Times found room on Page 1 for a story on Sprint's new ION service, which, to quote from the breathless lead, will “revolutionize the way people use their telephones.” Odd, but The New York Times, The Washington Post, indeed most major dailies missed this big news break. The Wall St. Journal relegated it to a couple hundred words, tucked into a corner on Page 3. Even USA Today left it in the business section.

Our proud paper, meanwhile, gave Sprint's new product a second story in Business, for a grand total of 2,299 words. How did the Times get that story? Follow the front-page story to the jump on Page 14, and you can't help but notice that the facing page and the preceding page carried full-page ads for . . . ION, Sprint's “Revolutionary New Network,” as the ad copy puts it.

According to Times spokeswoman Laura Morgan, the ads' placement was “pure coincidence.” “One is clearly an ad and the other is clearly a news story,” she went on. “Let there be no doubt.”
-Ben Ehrenreich

Leaf Blown
We were soothed, during a recent breakfast at the LAPD Police Academy cafe, by the comforting drone of a gas-powered leaf blower in the distance. It seems the boys and girls in blue have found a loophole in the city's ban on leafblowers – a tool that has furnished scores of immigrant gardeners with a (barely) living wage. Park maintenance supervisor Roger Michalek explained that any property more than 500 feet from a residence is exempt from the hotly contested leaf-blower ordinance. The city, of course, took care of the residential problem around the LAPD's training facility some time ago by razing a Latino neighborhood and turning the land over to the O'Malley family for Dodger Stadium, but that's another story.

As we watched a muscular LAPD gardener in an “Above and Beyond” T-shirt blast the leafy paths around the Academy's cascading fountains, we wondered why the city, loophole or no, would foul the already dirty air breathed by L.A.'s finest during their intense physical training regimen at the Academy. Michalek said some officers, like the wealthy Westside homeowners who backed the leaf-blower ban, complain about dust on their cars from the leaf blowers. But, as council deputy Glenn Barr pointed out, the “political decision” in the leaf-blower ban was not air but noise pollution. In other words, an annoying interruption to Westsiders' morning snoozes. A reminder, in case we needed it, that the leaf-blower ban was about solving the servant problems of the rich, not cleaning up the environment.
-Gale Holland

Man With a Gun
Former Riverside County Sheriff's Deputy Tracy Watson, who gained brief and unwelcome notoriety for his role in beating two suspected illegal immigrants on live television in 1996, was arrested last month after allegedly threatening his wife and stepchildren with a gun, and holding 15 deputies at bay for an hour outside his Norco home.

Citing police reports, the local Riverside Press-Enterprise reported that “Watson had said several days earlier he wanted a divorce and, while at home that day, began packing to move. Guns were among the items Watson packed.” The account continues:

“Watson, who appeared intoxicated, started screaming obscenities, throwing furniture and barbells through the windows and punching pictures on the walls . . . About that time, deputies responded to a call about a dispute at the home involving a man with a gun.”

For Watson, the alleged incident is apparently the latest in a pattern of that predates the videotaped beating. Watson has admitted in a 1997 deposition that while working in Lake Elsinore he belonged to a small clique of deputies who called themselves the Lake Town Bad Boys and wore tattoos of a skeleton cloaked in black and brandishing a gun. In his days as a police officer, Watson faced questions about his use of force in connection with at least four other incidents, including two shootings. In one instance, Watson was disciplined for beating a suspect already under arrest. He was fired from the Riverside Sheriff's Department in August 1996, in the wake of the immigrant beatings, and now runs his own private investigation firm.

Watson is scheduled to be formally charged June 20 in Riverside Municipal Court with child endangerment and malicious mischief. As yet no charges have been filed against him in connection with the televised beating.
-Sandra Hernandez

What started as an image problem over allegations of illegal labor practices could end up costing Santa Monica's Miramar Sheraton Hotel more than its reputation.

In a complaint issued Friday, the West Los Angeles regional office of the National Labor Relations Board accused the tony beachside hotel of paying off two employees who acted as anti-union agents and informants for the Miramar's management. The alleged moles received special salary increases of $2.50 and $3.50 per hour between 1996 and 1997. Other union workers were getting annual 30-cents-per-hour raises.

The NLRB is recommending that the hotel, to atone for this scheme, give more than 200 unionized employees comparable raises, retroactive to May 1996 – some seven figures-plus in back pay alone.

In the hotel's first public comment in months on the case, an attorney representing the Miramar brushed off the allegations: “After the hotel presents the facts, the charges will be dismissed,” said Joseph Herman, with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. He declined to elaborate. An administrative-law judge will hear the case November 30.
-Mary Moore

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