Friday, February 27, 2009
CITY ATTORNEY ELECTION:
Trutanich, Amerian, Weiss, Berger, Weiss Competing in March 3 Contest
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Five candidates are in the race Tuesday to become Los Angeles City Attorney, but the field basically comes down to four of them versus City Councilman Jack Weiss.
Long Beach Attorney Carmen Trutanich, Deputy City Attorney Michael Amerian, Marina Del Rey attorney Noel Weiss, and Deputy District Attorney David Berger all speak of each other with respect, if not admiration, as they vie to succeed Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, and unanimously criticize the councilman.
Noel Weiss opines that Jack Weiss, of no relation to him, has a “demonstrated record of failure,” noting the councilman’s spotty attendance record for council committee meetings and the animosity of constituents leading to a recall attempt in 2007.
Amerian criticizes Weiss’ lack of recent trial experience and more obliquely suggests the office needs a “prosecutor, not a politician.”
Berger, perhaps the most outspoken of the candidates, claims he “hate[s]” Jack Weiss.
“Jack has said he doesn’t like rolling around in mud…but it’s his mud,” Berger declares.
“From day one, I’ve been rattling Jack Weiss’ cage,” he says. “I’m not stopping.”
Trutanich has also accused Weiss of being a “career politician” looking to use the position as a stepping-stone for future office.
The opening volley between the candidates and Weiss, seen by many as the frontrunner, was fired early in the race by Trutanich, who proposed that each candidate agree to sign a document pledging to serve a full term in office.
“I plan to be city attorney for eight years, if the citizens will have me back after four.” Trutanich, 57, says. “I don’t plan on running for anything else.
While Trutanich acknowledges that the role of the city attorney is a political one, he insists:
“I’m not a politician and I refuse to become one,” explaining “politician has that deep negative connotation, like used car salesman or lawyer.”
Laughing, he adds:
“What’s that say for me now? I’m a lawyer and a politician, whoa! That’s scary.”
On a recent afternoon at Trutanich’s Studio City campaign headquarters, the candidate said “first and foremost, I’m a lawyer, and I’m a good lawyer.”
Trutanich is a partner with the litigation firm of Trutanich Michel, and his practice focuses mainly on environmental law.
He earned both his undergraduate and business degrees from USC, then began working for StarKist Tuna in the procurement department while attending the South Bay University College of law at night.
Upon graduating and gaining admission to the State Bar in 1979, Trutanich opened a small practice in his hometown of San Pedro, but shortly after that joined the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
As a deputy district attorney, he worked in the Hardcore Gang Division, and later established the office’s environmental crimes division, where he successfully tried the first felony environmental crime in the state.
In 1988, Trutanich re-entered private practice, establishing the environmental law firm of Jaffe, Trutanich, Scatena & Blum.
Trutanich and his suitemate, C. D. “Chuck” Michel, then formed their own firm in 1998.
While he is appearing on Tuesday’s ballot with the designation of “environmental attorney,” Trutanich emphasizes that he has practiced in several other areas of law, noting that he secured a $148 million wrongful death verdict at his last trial.
“I’ve tried a ton of cases,” he says. “Civil, criminal, you name it. I’ve got more experience than everyone in this race put together.”
Although Jack Weiss’ campaign recently criticized Trutanich for his 2004 representation of John Gary Woodrum, a charter boat captain who admitted to firing a rifle at sea lions near Santa Catalina Island, Trutanich maintains that Woodrum was entitled to counsel.
“The Sixth Amendment is alive in my life,” Trutanich declares loudly, suggesting that the councilman “doesn’t believe in it,” but adding in a mock whisper that when Weiss was charged by the Los Angeles Ethics Commission in 2005 and subsequently fined for 32 separate violations, “he hired a lawyer,” mockingly drawing the final word out in a sing-song manner.
“Maybe if he hired a guy like me, he wouldn’t have been hit so hard,” Trutanich adds with a laugh.
Trutanich opines that a good city attorney needs more than just trial experience and legal knowledge. With a $90 million annual budget, Trutanich maintains that the office is “a big business” in need of a CEO.
“This is a big job, and requires someone who knows how to run this office” he says. “I understand business, I’ve run a business, a payroll, for 22 years.”
He insists that the city attorney’s office “needs to take hold of its management,” and better utilize its own resources.
“When you have a budget of $90 million, and you’re spending $37.5 million on outside counsel, what does that tell you about the utilization of the attorneys in your office?” he asks.
Under his leadership, Trutanich vows to give the deputy city attorneys “the opportunity to be great,” by increasing the number of cases taken to trial and ending the city’s practice of retaining private counsel to represent it.
He also proposes entering into an agreement with neighboring cities to have them handle cases at a government rate that the office cannot take due to conflicts of interest, and accept cases from those cities in return.
“When I become city attorney, there will be a training division,” he insists, “so that every attorney will be cutting edge in terms of knowledge.”
Trutanich says he wants the office to go completely paperless and “be brought up to the 21st century on my watch.”
With a budget Trutanich estimates at being about $800,000 to $900,000, reported contributions of nearly $200,000 and the endorsements of District Attorney Steve Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca, the Los Angeles Times, and various other city attorneys and district attorneys, Trutanich’s campaign claims to be the current frontrunner in the election, and he says he thinks he can win the race without a run-off on Tuesday.
Deputy City Attorney
In 2005, Trutanich served a four-and-a-half month stint as a senior deputy city attorney, but says he left after “it became painfully obvious I couldn’t do what I wanted to do without being the man on top.”
The desire to become city attorney has been “simmering” ever since, he says, even though the move would be “an enormous pay cut.”
But, he insists, “I’m not in it for the money,” saying that he views the opportunity to serve as city attorney as “a way to say ‘thank you’” and “give back to the law for the 30 years it’s given me.”
Being a lawyer, Trutanich says, “is what God intended me to be,” and “at the end of the day…I know I’m destined to lead this office to greatness.”
At 34, Deputy City Attorney Michael Amerian is the youngest candidate in the race, yet he has nearly two decades of political experience.
Amerian began his career at the age of 15, volunteering to answer constituent phone calls for then-City Councilman Mike Woo, which he calls “just really basic government service for the people.”
Although Amerian has not attracted many endorsements other than Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich and Controller Laura Chick, he claims a very good relationship with many city council members, and his mother, Lynnette Amerian, is executive assistant to City Council President Eric Garcetti.
For a relatively little known candidate, he has also managed to raise a reported $112,880 and estimates his total budget as being between $600,000 to $700,000.
Amerian claims that public service has always been very important for his family, a value he says was instilled by his father, the late Court of Appeal Justice Richard Amerian.
The candidate says that one of the things that drew him to the City Attorney’s Office after he completed his education at Georgetown University and USC Law School, and spent two years in private practice with the now-disbanded Los Angeles firm of O’Donnell & Shaffer, was this desire to serve.
“We end up working more closely with communities than the D.A. or U.S. attorneys,” Amerian says of himself and his colleagues, explaining that the City Attorney’s Office “deals with the basic quality of life crimes that affect people on a daily basis.”
While his opponents all tout the large verdicts and notable cases they have won, Amerian opines such experience is “totally irrelevant” for the City Attorney’s Office, which primarily handles misdemeanor cases.
“If all these guys want is talk about their big cases,” Amerian says, “then run for D.A. That’s what the D.A. does.”
Amerian says his cases involve vandalism, drunken driving, domestic violence, or theft offenses, and that he has tried “hundreds” of cases and done over 30 jury trials.
“I love what we do,” he says, explaining that he was motivated to run for the top position in the office because he is “convinced that we need one of our own, not a politician from outside the office”
As the only candidate with the words “City Attorney” in his designation, Amerian opines that the label is “a very powerful tag” because “it does in three words what millions of dollars in advertisements try to do,” namely, informing voters “I work in the office, I know what we do, and I know how to do it better.”
Should he be elected, Amerian vows the office will be more proactive in working with communities on public safety and land use issues.
He proposes assigning as many attorneys as possible to work with specific geographic areas, instead of random assignments as are now made, to keep the attorneys working with the same politicians and police officers every day, creating familiarity which he predicts will breed increased responsibility and accountability.
As someone already in the office, Amerian says he has an advantage over his opponents because his plans are “ready to go.” He says he has already vetted them on his colleagues, promising “there’s no learning curve with me.”
Unlike the other candidates in the race, Marina Del Rey solo practioner Noel Weiss has no experience in a large law firm setting or in criminal law. But he maintains he does not see these things as an impediment to his ability to be an effective city attorney, opining that the vast majority of the work the City Attorney’s Office does is enforcing land use laws, his professed forte.
“The enforcement of land use laws has more of an effect on the lives of people than misdemeanor criminal laws because they affect the quality of life more,” Weiss claims, opining that his civil law background makes him better suited to serve as city attorney than his opponents.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from U.C. Berkley with a degree in business administration in 1973 and earning his law degree from Loyola Law School in 1976, Weiss entered private practice as a solo practitioner and with various small firms. His practice has focused on environmental and real estate law, as has his recent public interest advocacy work.
Among his notable accomplishments, Weiss cites his recent lobbying efforts to require the Los Angeles City Housing Department to better inform tenants living in rent control buildings of available relocation funding and to have the city include a program for tenants to have a right of first refusal to buy the building housing their apartments in its most recent housing plan.
The housing advocate is currently representing evicted tenants of the 75-unit Lincoln Place apartments in Venice who, Weiss says, were “thrown out into the street” in a “paramilitary operation” after the landlord allegedly breached a legally binding promise not to evict them.
He is also involved in opposing Measure B: a solar power ballot initiative backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Jack Weiss.
With little money—he has only reported raising just over $1,900—and no major endorsements, Noel Weiss’ campaign is based on parlaying his reputation based on his advocacy work into a viable bid for the city attorney spot.
Weiss insists that his track record demonstrates his ability to maneuver through the legal system and “get things done.”
He proposes an increase in transparency in order to “empower the people to assert their true voice on every single level” by increasing public access to documents used at public hearings, welcoming annual audits by the city controller, and publishing a comprehensive year-end report accounting for budget expenditures.
Additionally, Weiss says he wants to organize a task force to meet with citizens in each electoral district on a weekly basis to develop the office’s agenda and place a deputy city attorney in each city council member’s office to aid constituents and advise council members on an ongoing basis.
“I want to make this office the best public advocacy law firm in the county,” he says, “not the place where all good ideas go to die.”
Among the candidates, Deputy District Attorney David Berger is the harshest critic of Jack Weiss.
“I was horrified to find he was running,” Berger declares.
He accuses Weiss of being “beholden to special interests,” including the very same billboard companies which Weiss publicly opposes, and being “sneaky and backhanded and everything that’s been wrong with Los Angeles politics.”
As an example, Berger claims that Weiss voted with the city council to approve the installation of billboards which will generate revenue for the city that will be divided among the 15 council districts.
“Here’s a man who is saying he’s anti-billboard,” Berger complains, “but 50 pillars are going to be in his council district, which already has the most billboard blight and where the voters would like to string him up.”
A British transplant, Berger attended the Holborn College of Law at the University of London before hopping across the pond in 1989. Although a naturalized U.S. citizen, he still retains the marked accent of his native country.
Berger ran his family’s hotel business for five years after arriving to the country, and then enrolled at Loyola Law School. He was hired by the District Attorney’s Office immediately after graduating in 1997 as a law clerk, and then as a deputy district attorney as soon as he passed the bar in 1998.
“You cut your teeth in the D.A.’s Office prosecuting misdemeanors just like the city attorneys do,” Berger says, “so I’ve had plenty of experience with misdemeanors.”
He suggests that misdemeanors are oftentimes more challenging to try than felonies because “you have to convince the juries that a low grade crime matters.”
During his tenure with the District Attorney’s Office, Berger says, he was impressed by Cooley’s efforts to “to effectively reinvigorate and inspire an organization that has had less than admirable leadership.”
‘Roadmap’ for Reform
If elected, Berger says he will “follow the roadmap” set down by Cooley’s administration, by establishing a commission to examine the office objectively and provide recommendations, as well as create a bureau of investigators who can investigate cases that the police department “does not have the time or the inclination to pursue.”
His other proposals include ceasing the city’s practice of hiring private law firms to represent it.
“The regular deputy city attorney’s are more than capable of handling that,” Berger opines. “The office has some excellent attorneys in it, and they should be allowed to handle all of the cases that we have.”
He says he would also like to increase cooperation between the City Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office and create a program where attorneys can rotate between the offices to gain more civil and criminal experience.
This election marks Berger’s first foray into politics, and he says he hopes it will also be his last. “I hope to win, serve two terms, and then retire,” the 51-year old says, adding that “it’s time we had somebody who was there to do the job, and not to use the job as a stepping stone for something else.”
Berger also has not attracted much support in terms of endorsements, except for mayoral candidate Walter Moore, as Cooley has lent his support to Trutanich. Nor has he raised much money, having reported only $14,000.
But he says he has no real need to raise money. “I’m following the Obama example, sending out emails to all of the people who like the message,” he says, opining that his “viral approach” is more effective than the expensive television advertisement campaigns launched by Trutanich, Amerian and Jack Weiss.
The one candidate vilified by each of his opponents, City Councilman Jack Weiss, 44, has not let the harsh words bring him down.
“So far, so good,” he cheerfully says of his campaign.
“This is an office where the issues matter tremendously,” Weiss insists, suggesting that anyone who resorts to “harsh personal rhetoric” is “not worthy of being the city’s top public prosecutor.”
Voters also “see through a lot of the statements and rhetoric that come out of candidates this time of year,” Weiss opines. “The voters want someone responsible, [a] measured person who will run this office in a way that keeps Los Angeles safe, and that’s what I offer.”
Although Weiss declined to sign the pledge issued by Trutanich’s office, he says he did so because “I don’t participate in my opponents’ campaigns,” expressing doubt that the voters would pay any attention to such “stunts and trivia.”
Describing himself as a “career public lawyer,” Weiss declares, “I’m running for the job for one reason: it’s a great job and it’s what I want to do.”
To be an effective city attorney, Weiss maintains “it’s really important to have the whole package,” which consists of “substantial practice experience” and policymaking skills, which he says he cultivated as a federal prosecutor and councilmember.
A graduate of Princeton University and UCLA’s Law School, Weiss passed the bar exam in 1992, and spent nine months as an attorney with Irell & Manella LLP before joining the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1994.
Although he dealt with federal law as opposed to state law in that capacity, he claims the experience is still valuable because of the “level of rigor and fairness and preparation” the job required, insisting “there is no better preparation for a career in law.”
In 2001, Weiss won his seat on the city council representing the Fifth District, which includes parts of west Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. He was re-elected in 2005, but opted to enter the city attorney race in lieu of pursuing a third term.
“I am proud of my service in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the work I’ve done on the council,” he says. “I rest my case on my experience and on the work I’ve done, on my record.”
Among his accomplishments on the council, Weiss claims credit for expanding the police department by a thousand officers and lowering the city’s crime rate.
He says that “nothing is more important than the intricacies of the budget” in the coming years, and “making a concentrated push against gangs.”
Weiss insists that the ability to collaborate with the police department and the mayor’s office is essential to addressing these issues, which should pose no obstacle for Weiss as both Villaraigosa and Chief William J. Bratton are backing his bid for city attorney.
With the endorsement of law enforcement, democratic and labor groups, and a majority of the City Council, plus campaign coffers reportedly topping $242,000 in contributions, Weiss is a formidable opponent.
His campaign platform is based on establishing a zero-tolerance policy for illegal guns, environmental protectionism, combating identity theft, and expanding DNA testing to convict more rapists.
If elected he says his goal is to “raise the office up, to raise it’s profile, to raise it’s prestige, and to make the careers of it’s 500 lawyers even more successful.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company