Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Prequel to 1984 DA’s Race: Reiner Clashes With Other City Officials
By ROGER M. GRACE
101st in a Series
ROBERT H. PHILIBOSIAN, 38th district attorney of Los Angeles County, was a born prosecutor. When, as a new admittee to the State Bar, he came in for a county job interview, there were present a representative of the District Attorney’s Office, one from the Public Defender’s Office, and another from the County Counsel’s Office. Philibosian recites that he announced he was wasting the time of two of the interviewers; he was only interested in becoming a deputy district attorney. He got the position; he handled major prosecutions; fellow DDAs elected him president of the Deputy District Attorneys Assn.; he was assigned to head the Van Nuys office. When George Deukmejian became attorney general, the future governor chose Philibosian as assistant AG, in charge of the criminal division. The Board of Supervisors in 1982 appointed him as district attorney to fill a vacancy.
Ira Reiner, 39th district attorney of the county, was a born politician. The young but white-haired Reiner was smooth, deep-voiced, good-looking, and exuded self-confidence. He had served in the City of Los Angeles as a fire commissioner, as controller, and as city attorney. Skilled at self-promotion, detractors questioned whether he had any cause he truly wanted to advance other than himself. Reiner thrived on publicity, and knew how to get it; he was a grandstander. He had strong name identification, which served him at the polls. The lawyer thirsted for high office.
In 1984, Reiner was pitted against incumbent Philibosian for the post of Los Angeles County district attorney. (An obscure third candidate was also in the race.) I’ve told of Philibosian’s background in previous columns, so, to put the contest in perspective, Reiner’s background should be laid out. Here’s a start on it:
•Reiner was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1964, the year he received his law degree from Southwestern School of Law.
•The Appellate Department of the Los Angeles Superior Court on Sept. 17, 1968, overturned the conviction of three neo-Nazis who had interfered with an anti-war demonstration. The reversal stemmed from “improper conduct” on the part of the prosecutor, then-Deputy City Attorney Reiner. He was accused of being “over-zealous” in the form of “appealing to passion and prejudice instead of logic”—such as referring to the defendants in closing argument as “scum and filth.”
•He represented Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten from Feb. 6 to July 17, 1970 in connection with murder charges. That representation would be used against him in the 1981 city attorney race, in which his adversary employed a guilt-by-association ploy, linking Reiner with Manson.
•Reiner ran for the post of Los Angeles city attorney in 1973, challenging incumbent Roger Arnebergh. A March 11 article in the Times reports: “In recent days, Reiner’s charges have become increasingly shrill in tone. This culminated last Wednesday when he accused Arnebergh of following racist and antisemetic policies in hiring and operating the city attorney’s office.” Reiner, 36, referred during the campaign to Arnebergh, 63, as a “frightened old man.” Arnebergh (since deceased) was forced into a May 29 run-off—not with Reiner, but with Burt Pines, who won the post (and is now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge). Reiner pulled about 8 percent of the vote in the April 3 primary.
•Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (also deceased) on Aug. 7, 1973 named Reiner to the city Fire Commission.
•The Nov. 24, 1974 issue of the Times lists Reiner as among those eying the City Council’s Fifth District seat, vacated by Ed Edelman upon ascending to the Board of Supervisors. In a Dec. 15 piece, Times staff writer Doug Shuit comments about Reiner and another lawyer who was potential candidate: “Ira Reiner and Art Gilbert, who have reputations as being bright and able,...are considered ‘too nice’ to be successful politicians, meaning they lack the political toughness to go for an opponents’ jugular.” If Reiner did not have that capacity then, he did gain it in succeeding years. Neither Reiner nor Gilbert (now presiding justice of the Ventura-based Div. Six of this district’s Court of Appeal) became a contender for the City Council open seat in the April 1, 1975, primary election.
•Reiner’s name did appear on the ballot in that election. He ran for a seat on the Community College Board of Trustees, and wound up in a run-off with incumbent Marian La Follette (who went on to serve three terms in the Assembly, losing in her 1974 effort to gain the GOP nomination for controller). Reiner was part of a three-member slate of liberal candidates seeking to wrest control of the board from conservatives, Reiner prevailed in the May 27 election, as did one other liberal, Gwen Moore—one win too few to effect a take-over. (Moore later won election eight times to the Assembly, but lost a 1994 bid for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state.)
•It was on Dec. 6, 1976 that Reiner declared his candidacy for city controller. He went for the jugular—the jugular vein not of an opponent, but that of the incumbent, Charles Navarro, who had announced he would not seek a fifth term. Reiner termed the Controller’s Office “the weak link in city government,” marked by “carelessness and neglect.” In all, 10 vied for the post in the April 5 primary. Reiner’s opponents included Los Angeles City Councilman Louis Nowell, who decided not to seek reelection to the city’s law-making body in light of some minor scandals, and former Board of Education member J.C. Chambers. An April 1 Times editorial says: “We believe Reiner has the strongest qualifications for transforming the controller’s office into the public watchdog over the city’s financial affairs that it can and should be.” Reiner—who had staunch support of the Democratic Party and organized labor—led the pack, with nearly 44 percent of the vote. He faced a run-off with state Assemblyman Robert C. Cline, a Northridge Republican who bagged about 19.5 percent of the ballots in the primary. Party politics were part of the equation in the race for this nonpartisan office. Reiner won the May 31 runoff by 61 percent. However, his campaign had accepted goods and services without an ability to pay for them; it had a $146,500 debt.
•As city controller, he gained favorable publicity in September, 1977, by refusing to sign checks amounting to $21,000 relating to a planned three-week Harbor Department junket to Asia, supposedly to boost trade. The total projected cost was about $40,000. Scheduled to be in the entourage was a beauty queen. (The department sought to defend the inclusion of “Miss Port of Los Angeles” on the ground that a Japanese official had requested she come along, to be his tennis partner.) Plans for the trip were scaled down; the beauty queen had to stay home; one Harbor Commission member who was eliminated from participation resigned in protest; and the City Council approved the allocation of $30,000 in funds. Council members acted on advice from Pines that Reiner did not have the authority to block a trip. Reiner performed a service for the city by spotting imminent wasteful spending…but, rather than quietly referring the matter to the City Council for action, sought and got personal publicity, attempted to unilaterally set policy for the city, and tried to ramrod. These approaches became his hallmark. He was right, dead right, as to some of the excesses he exposed, but ill-advised in his technique, sometimes petty to the point of silliness. The Herald Examiner, in its Feb. 1, 1988 issue, recites that Reiner, as controller in February of 1979, “[r]ejected as excessive a $6 bill for breakfast turned in by a city pension commissioner who ate three eggs for breakfast, but often skips lunch, suggesting the perfect $4.25 breakfast was ham, two eggs, juice and coffee.” (The reason for that retrospective was that Reiner, as district attorney, was charging high-priced meals at the Pacific Dining Car to the county.)
•In October of 1977, Reiner antagonized City Council members by issuing guidelines on office expenditures, pointing out that one member had spent $200 on an office party. All expenditures, the controller directed, must relate to a public purpose. He was accused of hypocrisy later that month based on issuing an office news release dealing with policy in the Middle East and a $1,000-a-plate Democratic National Committee fundraiser to be held Saturday night, with President Jimmy Carter as keynote speaker. In the press release, Reiner set forth that he had “serious reservations” as to Carter’s Middle East policy, but said that he rejected the view, expressed by some of his fellow Jewish Democrats, that “nonattendance at the President’s dinner...is in any sense appropriate.” He said the proposed action would “give the appearance of a boycott of the President.” Reiner reluctantly agreed to reimburse the city $11.56 which he reckoned as the cost of copying and distributing the press release.
•Reiner, in December of the same year, received a check in the amount of $1,178 from Council member David Cunningham based on phone calls charged to his City Hall phone number by his publicist. Reiner had threatened to deposit Cunningham’s paychecks in the city general fund until the bill was satisfied. Also in December, he called upon Council member Pat Russell to reimburse the city for the two $4 tickets she purchased for “Las Vegas Night,” held by the New Frontier Democratic Club. And so it went.
•In June, 1978, after Los Angeles had been designated as the site for the 1984 Summer Olympics, Reiner joined with Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi in fostering a proposed initiative to bar use of city funds on the event. Insufficient signatures were gathered. Businesses profited from visitors in 1984, and the city wound up with a profit.
•By June of 1978, it was known that Reiner was flirting with the idea of challenging Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1981 mayoral contest. That was noted by the news media in reporting that the controller had scored Bradley for making too many concessions to the Olympics Committee. Relations between Bradley and Reiner were, in those days, frayed.
•In February, 1979, Reiner refused to honor the mayor’s $400.13 expense claim in connection with a trip to Hawaii, a trip which Bradley insisted had a business purpose and which Reiner declared to have been a vacation. By then (apparently bowing to a determination by the City Attorney’s Office that he lacked authority to make policy determinations) he was forwarding requests he questioned to the City Council. The council, by a vote of 11-0, overrode Reiner’s determination. Such rebuffs came on other occasions in connection with trips by city officials.
•Damning criticism of Reiner appears in June 10, 1979 issue of the Valley News. Joyce Peterson writes:
City Administrative Officer C. Erwin Piper...said he did not think Reiner was taking any leadership on the important matters facing his office.
For instance, Piper said, the controller has done virtually nothing in an effort to develop an integrated financial system for the city.
“Everything that has been done we’re doing here in the CAO’s office,” Piper said. “He (Reiner) has never attended a meeting of the policy committee. He sends Tony Miera.”
In fact, Piper said, it is Antonio Miera, chief deputy controller, who actually runs Reiner’s office. The CAO said Miera handles major decisions while Reiner spends his time on trivial issues that make news like travel.
•Reiner edged closer to running for mayor. A March 3, 1980 news analysis piece by Peterson says:
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley once called him a “phony” SOB.
City Councilman David Cunningham said he was a “Hitler.”
Harbor Commission President Fredric Helm described him as a “pompous, pious fraud.”
Despite such rave reviews, there seemed little doubt last week that Ira Kenneth Reiner, controller of the city of Los Angeles, was off and running to become the city’s next mayor.
•“The simple fact of the matter is that the controller lost track of more than $20 million in city funds in a series of repeated errors running over some six months.” That statement by City Councilman Marvin Braude was made July 31, 1980, at a meeting of the Finance and Revenue Committee, which he chaired. (Braude died in 2005.) The committee was concerned by the revelation that $15 million had erroneously been shifted from the General Fund to the Police Fire and Pension Fund and $5.3 million had been mistakenly tucked into the City Employees Retirement System. Reiner didn’t deny the boner, but is quoted in the Aug. 8 edition of the Times as minimizing it, saying “there has been no loss to the city in any sense of the word,” that the books simply need to be adjusted, and that Braude had exaggerated “in a manner so gross that it clearly suggests a deliberate attempt to mislead.”
•The mayoral campaign was taking shape by late 1980. A Sept. 24, 1980 article in the Herald Examiner says: “He definitely will run for mayor next spring.” Then, out of the blue, the controller announced Nov. 17 he would run for city attorney, instead of mayor. The Times, in its edition the next morning, quotes him as saying that Bradley had a “very substantial lead.” The article goes on to report: “ ‘When somebody has a very substantial lead, generally the campaign involves attack, attack, attack. I’m not interested in that,’ said Reiner, who is known in City Hall for his frequent attacks on politicians for what he considers junketeering.”
The race for the post of city attorney and Reiner’s performance in that office will be recounted here tomorrow.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company