Have we had it all wrong about Los Angeles Times publisher Mark Willes, once known in these pages as the “Cereal Killer”? That hurtful sobriquet — which we hereby forswear — referred to Willes’ previous stint as chairman of General Mills and his penchant for aggressively downsizing — sorry, we mean right sizing — workers at the companies under his stewardship. But it utterly fails to express the passionate — no, bleeding, even — heart that beats behind Willes’ bland corporate mien.

Item: In one of his first Times’ speeches, Willes chokes up and cries actual tears when talking before an audience of company execs — and then he does it again later in front of a group of Times department managers. (One source — clearly a hardened cynic — alleged that Willes teared up at the same point in the speech each time. We don’t believe it.)

Item: Speaking before a meeting of stockholders, Willes gets weepy-eyed while talking about his wife. (Can your husband do this?)

Item: The New York Times reports that Willes sheds more tears speaking at a journalism conference last month about a much-hyped L.A. Times series on kids living in stygian apartments with crack-head parents in Long Beach. And last week, recounting a Times report on gun violence — and a 10-year-old victim’s last words — Willes weeps again to an audience in Santa Barbara.

We owe Mark Willes an apology for suggesting that crass profit motives led him to close down venerable newspapers and fire some thousands of workers; for insinuating that Willes’ innovative moves to bring together warring factions in editorial and marketing were part of a focus-group-driven, marketing-oriented plot to dumb-down print media. This is a man of passion, a man of feeling. Someone who cares.

That Willes can tear up seemingly on cue does nothing at all to lessen our admiration for him. Does Willes realize what that kind of talent is worth in this town? How many actors wouldn’t sell their best friend down the river to forgo that ego-bruising call for “more glycerin” on the set? Forget the lecture circuit, Mark — this is the kind of thing Clinton rode all the way to the White House.

Memo to Mark Willes: Call your agent.

AIDS Humor

We’re trying to figure out which is worse: the ineptitude and mismanagement at the county AIDS office, or county health-care honcho Mark Finucane’s sense of humor.

Millions in debt, crippled by warring AIDS-care factions and brisk staff turnover, and for the last year without a permanent director, the county AIDS office is in a state of what might charitably be called disarray. (To give one recent example, a county audit showed that the office botched applications for $26 million in state reimbursement money for AIDS-drug prescriptions.)

This is the backdrop against which Finucane chose to play a little April Fools’ prank. The setting was last week’s meeting of the L.A. County Health Deputies, to whom Finucane had recently announced a new permanent director for the AIDS office. It was a tough audience — county bureaucrats and local AIDS activists were pissed, number one because the extensive search for a director had turned up no viable candidates from L.A. And worse, of the three finalists selected — none of whom inspired at a meeting of AIDS leaders last month — the two least dreadful ultimately turned the job down, leaving the county with an AIDS paper pusher par excellence from New York named Charles Henry.

When it was Finucane’s turn to speak at the meeting, he announced that Henry, too, had turned down the job. Grinning broadly, Finucane turned to a kindly county bureaucrat named Fred Lief, asked if he was interested in the job, and then walked out, leaving the room stunned. Did this mean back to square one? A new search? More dithering and squandered millions?

No, it was just Finucane’s idea of a little joke. The uninspiring Charles Henry indeed had accepted the job. Hilarious, Mr. Finucane. Ha, ha.

Hooked on Gaming

For eight years now, the federal government has been wallowing in a quagmire known as the Bicycle Club Casino in Bell Gardens. The largest asset ever seized under federal racketeering laws (the casino, it turns out, had been built with laundered drug money), the Bicycle Club has been a source of more or less nonstop embarrassment for the U.S. Marshals Service, which has had the primary responsibility for managing the property since it was forfeited in 1990.

There was, for instance, the little matter in 1994 of the club’s highest-paid employee being convicted of operating a vast money-laundering scheme out of the casino’s Asian-games section. And just two years ago, the casino’s government-appointed trustee, a dim bulb from Las Vegas named Harry Richard, resigned after being exposed in a scheme to sell the casino through mob-connected cronies. These are just the highlights of this comedy.

Last week, that quagmire got deeper still. On Thursday, the casino’s founder and longtime general manager, a colorful impresario and iconoclast named George Hardie, sued the Marshals Service for $150 million. Hardie and his partners — who were not implicated in the 1990 bust, and remain minority shareholders of the club — are trying to recoup lost profits stemming from the precipitous decline in revenues that has taken place under the government’s stewardship.

The big question is why, after eight years, is the federal government still in the gambling business? The answer, Hardie suggests, is the same reason he opened the Bicycle Club in the first place: for the money. Since 1990 the U.S. Marshals Service has raked in some $38 million in profits from the Bicycle Club, even given the operation’s depressed state. When the club is eventually sold, the spigot will be turned off. Like law-enforcement agencies across the country, the Marshals Service seems to be hooked on the lucre of seized assets. Detox, anyone?

—Edited by Sam Gideon Anson

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