Wednesday, October 3, 2007
District Attorney’s Criminal Action Against Supervisors Fizzles
By ROGER M. GRACE
Forty-Eighth in a Series
ASA KEYES, L.A.’s district attorney, brought criminal charges on Oct. 4, 1926, against all five members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Such a drastic action would, depending on whether the allegation were borne out by the evidence or not, establish the DA either as a man of courage and commitment...or one sorrowfully lacking in judgment.
The category into which Keyes fit soon became evident.
The intergovernmental fracas included the supervisors preferring criminal charges against Keyes...charges that quickly perished, as discussed in a recent column. In taking a look at Keyes’ action against the supervisors, we come across…
•The supposed inside story of how third-term District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine persuaded the Board of Supervisors three years earlier to appoint Keyes as his successor. Woolwine resigned because of ill health June 6, 1923, and died July 8, 1925.
•A distress call issued by the supervisors and the L.A. Times over alleged efforts of a power craving boss at the City of Los Angeles level seeking to extend his influence to county government—that aspiration being manifested by the present criminal action.
In 13 counts, Keyes charged the supervisors and three others with conspiracy to defraud the county, embezzlement, and preparing false evidence. The charges related to the county’s $62,000 purchase of 560 acres of Big Pine Park (located in a remote area just south of San Bernardino County) and the alleged retention by the supervisors and other county officials of 34 acres of parkland, on which they put up private cabins, using county labor.
When Woolwine was DA, it was known that he was probing the deal. It was also widely recognized that he was engaged in a feud with the supervisors…and a number of other local officials…and was in ill-health and eying retirement—but was bound not to relinquish office unless he approved of the man who would replace him.
The March 9, 1923 edition of the Los Angeles Times quotes Woolwine as saying:
“I would resign in a minute if Dep. Dist.-Atty. Keyes or one of the other deputies in my office—or if even an honest man from the outside would be appointed in my place. I have made all my plans to enter into private practice after I take a good rest, but I must be assured that an honest man will succeed.”
(He got his wish, in a way; Keyes was appointed…but, as it turned out, Woolwine’s successor was anything but an “honest man.”)
An article in the Oct. 5, 1926, issue of the Los Angeles Express, appearing the day after the charges against the supervisors were filed, seeks to tie it all together. It says:
The feud which led to the fight, goes back to 1921 when the late Thomas Lee Woolwine was in office.
Woolwine was ill. He wished to retire. The board, consisting then, as it does now, of R. F. McClellan, chairman; Jack Bean, F. E. Woodley. Henry W. Wright and Prescott Cogswell, was more than willing to accept the fiery prosecutor’s resignation. They desired to place A. J. (Bud) Hill, then county counsel, in the district attorney’s chair. Woolwine has a different idea—he wanted Keyes, then one of his deputies, to succeed him.
The board did not favor Keyes.
It was then Woolwine sent Capt. Jess Hunter, chief of his detectives, to Big Pines where the county a short while before had purchased a park, called “Camp McClellan,” in honor of the board’s chairman. Hunter unearthed the evidence upon which Keyes acted yesterday.
He found, it is charged, that the board loaned $50,000 of the taxpayers’ funds to one Allan Jones. Jones, with this public money, the allegation sets forth, bought the mountain land for the park. Then, it is charged, he sold it to the county for $62,000—a $12,000 profit without using a cent of his own funds.
The other charges go on from that point.
They recite how the board and three of its friends, William Davidson, head of the county’s mechanical department; Fred E. Wadsworth, superintendent of the park, and George W. Jones, county road commissioner, took over 35 acres of the tract for themselves, had it surveyed with county labor, built themselves cabins with county material and county labor.
Keyes does not deny the board members paid for this material and labor, but contends that despite this fact the transaction was illegal.
Hunter, it is known, laid his findings before Woolwine, who in turn assigned William (Wild Bill) Clark, one of the most brilliant trial lawyers in the Southwest, then a member of his staff, to the case.
Clark, it is said, drew up a complaint almost identical to the one filed yesterday and presented it to Woolwine.
Many stories have been told of Woolwine’s meeting with the board, following the drawing of this never-filed complaint.
All that is actually known is that Hill was not named district attorney. Keyes got the post and Woolwine resigned.
Apparent calm settled over the situation.
Davidson, Wadsworth and Jones—identified in the Express’ article as “friends” of the supervisors who built cabins near theirs—were co-defendants in the action filed by Keyes.
Then, as now, the preferred way to proceed against public officials was by way of indictment. In this instance, however, the 1926 grand jury was reportedly all set to indict the supervisors…but on the very day they were to do so, the members were all discharged by the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Arthur Keech on the ground that there had been too many leaks to the press of the grand jury’s probe of Aimee Semple McPherson’s supposed kidnapping.
What emerged during the preliminary hearing was that the county recreational area was not “Camp McClellan.” It was called “Big Pines Park.”
Camp McClellan, where the supervisors and other county officials built cabins, was 34 acres of wilderness land in the Angeles National Forest privately leased from the federal government for $150 a year. The lessee was the Camp McClellan Improvement Association, of which the supervisors and others were shareholders.
The purchase by the county of 560 acres of land about a half a mile from Camp McClellan, and outside the national forest, took place later. Jones (who had an option on the property for which he paid $50,000—which the county did not advance) initially asked a purchase price of $105,000…later lowered it to $75,000…and in the end, agreed to accept $62,000 for the land. When the asking price was still at the $75,000 level, the supervisors sought input from the Realty Board which responded on May 4, 1922 that the property was worth that. The supervisors bought the land for the county, then obtained 5,000 acres from the federal government gratis, and bought an additional 80 acres for $6,000.
The most damning prosecution evidence was that bath tubs, sinks, cabinet and doors taken from a building the county had purchased and turned into offices were taken by county personnel to Camp McClellan were they were used in constructing the cabins. However, later evidence indicated that payment was made for the cost of transporting the materials, as well as for the materials themselves. Resolutions passed by the board in public session authorized the sales. Now, there might well have been some self-dealing there. Was a used bathtub worth more than $7.50 in 1922? That would be $92.82 in terms of today’s dollar. Whatever, if any, ethics violations were involved, the 13-count felony complaint was hardly justified.
As the preliminary hearing went on, public interest in it waned. The Times’ article of Dec. 4 says:
“The case, which, in some quarters was looked forward to as having the elements of a sensation, has developed testimony extremely trite. The spectators have dwindled to nil.”
On Dec. 7, Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Myron Westover (later elected to the Superior Court) dismissed the charges after the prosecution concluded its presentation.
The bringing of the baseless prosecution against the supervisors wound up intensifying popular doubts as to the judgment of the county’s district attorney...his judgment already having been brought into question in a torrent of reproofs from California’s governor, Friend Richardson.
(In 1946, the county swapped Big Pines Park for other land owned by the federal government.)
Quick to deride Keyes over the fiasco was the Times. That newspaper was by no means enamored of Keyes; it had endorsed his 1924 challenger, and the newspaper’s publisher, Harry Chandler, came to be the target of Keyes’ invective.
An editorial in its Dec. 9, 1926 issue links the prosecution of the supervisors to efforts by a political power broker at the city level, Kent Kane Parrot, and others, to extend their influence to the county level, with a further ambition to control state politics. The editorial says that it was “a matter for regret and astonishment that the District Attorney’s office should have lent itself to this conspiracy to the extent of sponsoring against the county’s highest officials felony charges so flimsy and unsupported that they were summarily thrown out of court before they had advanced beyond the stage of a preliminary hearing.”
The editorial notes that on Sept. 21—a day shy of two weeks before criminal charges were filed against the county supervisors—Keyes met with McClellan and the supervisors’ private lawyers—A.J. Hill (who was no longer county counsel) and his law partner, Vincent Morgan—and, after reviewing the facts, “exclaimed emphatically: ‘I’ll be damned if I can see where there’s been any crime committed.’ ”
The editorial asks:
“What wires were pulled to cause Mr. Keyes thirteen days later to file felony charges against the Board of Supervisors on this same specific issue?”
An earlier Times editorial, appearing on Oct. 6, charges that “the Parrot gangsters and their local newspaper mouthpiece, the Los Angeles Record, have for months directed a reckless campaign of vilification” against the supervisors. The editorial recites that the county lawmakers now “publicly charge that the District Attorney has lent himself to a political conspiracy to overturn the county government and to replace it with one dominated by the same forces which now rule the city.”
Retired Los Angeles Police Department investigator Steve Hodel, in his 2003 book, “Black Dahlia Avenger,” refers to Parrot as “early L.A.’s least familiar but most powerful syndicate boss.” He recites:
“Kane Kent Parrot arrived in Los Angeles to attend law school at the University of Southern California in 1907....He was a big man, six foot two, and possessed a magnetic personality. He obtained his law degree and was admitted to the state bar.”
Hodel goes on to say:
“By 1924, Kent Parrot had become the power behind the throne in Los Angeles municipal politics. In the 1921 race for mayor, he successfully selected and got elected George Cryer, who became known as ‘Parrot’s Puppet,’ at which point Parrot quickly aligned himself with Los Angeles’s vice lords, including the young bootlegging czar Tony Cornero. Parrot, while publicly discreet in his dealings with the underworld, would entertain its members and broker relationships among them at his private apartment at the city’s newest and finest downtown hotel, the Biltmore....”
Whether some of Parrot’s underworld connections had ties to Keyes is unknown, but it is known that Parrot supported Keyes, and there was suspected bribe-taking on Keyes’ part aside from the particular instance that eventually resulted in his conviction.
A May 1, 1927, reflection in the Times on the 1924 contest for the district attorney’s post says that a challenge to Keyes by a Police Court judge was rendered “almost hopeless as Keyes had formed an alliance with the Parrot city machine.”
In “Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s” (2001), Tom Sitton and William Francis Deverell remark: “In late 1926, Parrot tried to branch out into county and state politics. He had little success at the county level, as he could count on the support of only one of the five supervisors and the district attorney.”
Parrot lost the latter contact when Keyes left office in 1928. In January, 1929, Parrot had a parting of ways with Cryer after the mayor elevated the status of his secretary, H.H. Kinney. He soon after broke with the governor, C.C. Young, and was out of politics.
A March 24, 1956 obituary in the Times begins:
“A former Los Angeles political figure, Atty. Kent Parrot, once described as ‘the man who brought machine politics to Los Angeles,” died March 11 at the age of 73 in his Monetecito home, it was learned here yesterday.”
The article alluded to a woman who divorced Parrot in 1929 as his “first wife.” Actually, his first wife was a third cousin of his whom he married in 1905. She was Mary O’Hara, author of “My Friend Flicka.”
In the next installment in this series: the outcome of Keyes’ prosecution of Aimee Semple McPherson.
PERSONAL NOTE: Today marks 30 years since this column first appeared in the MetNews. It had previously been in the Daily Journal for five years.
It was the publisher of that paper, Bob Work (since deceased), who had suggested that my wife and I buy the MetNews. The column continued in the D.J. even after we went into escrow, and Bob had assured me that I could write a “farewell” column.
However, my columns were suddenly barred. Bob explained that Charlie Munger, head of the New America Fund which had just purchased the Daily Journal, asked him if the rumor were true as to our purchase; Bob affirmed it was; Charlie ordained that my columns would be published in the D.J. no more.
Last Sunday marked 30 years since we acquired the newspaper. Sept. 30, 1977 was a Friday, and our first issue came out on Monday, Oct. 3.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company