Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Further Prequel to 1984 DA’s Race: City Attorney Reiner Breaches Legal Ethics
By ROGER M. GRACE
102nd in a Series
IRA K. REINER ran for Los Angeles city attorney in 1981, and was elected, largely owing to an eleventh-hour flash of bad judgment by his chief rival, City Councilman Bob Ronka, whose campaign turned dirtier than even his supporters would tolerate. Three years later, Reiner challenged Los Angeles District Attorney Robert H. Philibosian at the polls, and won under fortuitous circumstances.
To put the 1984 race in perspective, it’s necessary to look at Reiner’s background. Yesterday, I got up to 1980 when Reiner, who had been expected to run for mayor, made the surprise announcement on Nov. 17, 1980, that he would seek the post of city attorney.
Burt Pines, who won that office in 1973, had pledged at the outset that he would not seek a third term. He remembered his promise, and kept it. Ronka had made it known on Aug. 11 he would seek the office, and had begun building up his campaign coffers, hoping to ward off any meaningful competition in 1981. He had already accumulated $235,000, originally intended to be used in a race for reelection to the City Council.
Now, Reiner was in the race. His name was well known from the vast publicity he had garnered as city controller, constantly vetoing expenses claimed by officials and otherwise engaging in battles with fellow inhabitants of City Hall.
Ronka, whose name was not as well known, did have advantages. Reiner was known as a grandstander, and many members of the public were weary of his constant noisemaking. Ronka had a knack for fund-raising while there was a tendency on the part of political donors to shy away from the controversial Reiner. Though Ronka, like Reiner, was a Democrat, Republicans were getting behind him because of some of Reiner’s 1980 hit pieces, in the form of letters, against five Republican Assembly members, sent too late to permit time for responses.
Ronka’s campaign for the nonpartisan office was nonpartisan; Reiner ran as a Democrat.
A message—on a “Ronka for City Attorney” letterhead—went out to members of the bar in the city, dated Jan. 19, 1981, addressed to “Dear Colleague.” It tells of “Bob’s outstanding legal background and even-handed administration of justice,” and urges endorsing him and participating in a Feb. 11 fundraiser. The letter is signed by Democratic National Committeeman Charles T. Manatt, founder of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; Republican Evelle J. Younger, a former California attorney general (now deceased); and Democrat Shirley Hufstedler, whose service as secretary of education would terminate the next day when the Carter Administration ended. (Also signing the letter was Los Angeles attorney Stephen Chrystie, a friend of Reiner who was guaranteeing one of Reiner’s bank loans.)
The Los Angeles Times on April 7 lent a major boost to Ronka’s chances by endorsing him. Its editorial says:
“We favor Ronka for two reasons. One is that, as the 1st District representative on the City Council, he has been able to work effectively with others at City Hall.
“In contrast, Reiner has been feuding with elective officials, including those he presumably would serve as the city’s lawyer, for all his four years as controller. Although he has brought greater visibility to the office, most of his publicity-generating actions have been more productive of headlines for Reiner than of significant savings to the city.
“Ronka is not averse to attracting media attention to himself, either, but he has not done it, as Reiner has, by attacking other officials on grounds that are often petty.”
The second reason was that Ronka had vowed to continue Pines’ policies—and Pines had endorsed him. The newspaper comments that under Pines, “[t]he 270 lawyers in the city attorney’s office have been able to work in an atmosphere free of the bombast that one associates with Reiner’s direction of the controller’s office.”
The Times was endorsing Ronka, basically, because he was not Reiner and would try to be like Pines—a slap at Reiner and a testimonial to Pines. Nothing was said as to any proven abilities on Ronka’s part as a lawyer or administrator which presaged an ability on his part to lead the city’s law office.
(In fact, Ronka’s credentials were much in doubt, though this was not a major focus of the campaign. A report in the March 25 edition of the MetNews says that the previous day, in a debate staged by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., Reiner proclaimed that Ronka “never tried a case in his life.” Ronka responded later in an interview that he had tried “probably half a dozen cases” that were “probably” divided ‘half and half’ between civil and criminal”—but later reflected that it was “probably more” than that, bringing to mind that he had “tried four or five DUIs, alone.”)
Though behind in the polls, Ronka was ahead in fundraising, and had the money to launch a television advertising blitz that might have brought him victory. But he muffed it.
Apparently desperate in light of Reiner outdistancing him in the polls, he resorted to a “guilt-by-association” technique that was shameful, and which backfired. A Times editorial of April 10—appearing three days after the endorsement—denounces “a Ronka TV commercial that flashes pictures of a smiling Reiner and a menacing Charles Manson and falsely identifies Reiner as the ‘private attorney’ for the Manson Family of mass murderers.”
Reiner had, for eight months, represented one of the accused cult slayers (later convicted), Leslie Van Houten. He was fired by her before trial.
The editorial declares:
“We find particularly outrageous the implication that a defense attorney somehow shares a client’s guilt or reputation.”
This brings to mind the attempt just a few months ago of another city councilman who was running for city attorney, Jack Weiss, to tarnish the image of his opponent, Carmen Trutanich (the victor), based on the defendants Trutanich had represented in criminal cases…seemingly imputing their sins to him.
The 1981 editorial goes on to say:
“The commercial is the worst misrepresentation yet in a campaign in which both candidates have been guilty of fraudulent advertising. The Ronka spot is the more scurrilous because it suggests that a lawyer who would represent Manson or his followers would not vigorously prosecute other criminals.”
The Times, in that editorial, did something extraordinary: it withdrew its endorsement of Ronka. It could not, however, bring itself to endorse Reiner, declaring it would “have no preference in the contest for city attorney.” The editorial, bearing the headline, “Washing Our Hands,” concludes: “From beginning to end, the contest between Reiner and Ronka has been an ugly one, and we wash our hands of it.”
Explaining why the newspaper would not switch its allegiance to Reiner, the editorial says:
“The withdrawal of our endorsement of Ronka does not mean that we now look more favorably on Reiner or on his TV propaganda. His commercials claim a 90% conviction rate when he was in the city attorney’s office a number of years ago, but he has been unwilling or unable to document that claim. They also suggest that his convictions were of dangerous criminals when, in fact, the city attorney’s office prosecutes only misdemeanants.
“Reiner has been a grandstanding city controller who has been guilty of petty attacks on other public officials to promote his own political ambitions. And there is every probability that he would use the city attorney’s office for the same purposes.”
Nothing new emerged of a negative nature about Reiner; it had all been said before. But Ronka had been humiliated. Even before the Times editorial appeared, he had agreed to pull the commercials, yielding to advice by Pines.
Pines did not withdraw his endorsement of Ronka—but came close. He demanded that commercials he had taped speaking in Ronka’s behalf be pulled. Then-District Attorney John Van de Kamp, who had been neutral in the race, condemned the commercials.
Topping it off was that 150,000 letters were sent out by Ronka’s committee a few days before the election saying: “On April 14th, your choice is Ira Reiner, the defender of the Charlie Manson Family, or Bob Ronka, backed by the 6,500-member Los Angeles Police Protective League.” Any advantage to Ronka gained by the letter was dwarfed by the harm done to his chances through adverse press coverage of it.
Reiner nearly won the office outright in the primary. There were two minor candidates on the ballot whose votes were sufficient to force him into a run-off with Ronka. The final tally was 49.60 percent of the 451,055 that were cast votes going to Reiner and 31.58 to Ronka, with Deputy City Attorney Charles Zinger drawing 16.98 percent, and Lee S. Drabin, a candidate who had thrown in the towel and endorsed Ronka, getting 1.81 percent.
After the set-back, Ronka’s campaign could not regain momentum. In the run-off, Reiner received about 63 percent of the vote. He was sworn in as city attorney on July 1.
Ronka’s committee had spent $1,205,277 and Reiner’s camp had incurred expenditures of $877,451, according to an Aug. 15 Daily News article.
Most of what Reiner spent was borrowed. The new city attorney had a campaign debt of about $650,000, and he still hadn’t paid off debts from his race for the controller’s post fours earlier.
Two actions by Reiner as city attorney stand out:
●He lambasted the Los Angeles Police Department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division (“PDID”) on Jan. 17, 1983, for abuses in conducting its intelligence gathering operations…doing so at the very time he was defending the city against liability in six lawsuits based on allegations that 11 members of the division, in conducting intelligence gathering operations, had engaged in abuses.
In particular, Reiner said at a public session before a City Council committee: “I have no confidence, no confidence whatsoever, in the ability of the PDID to legitimately and properly gather intelligence.”
He declared that a band of zealots in the division believed it to be “completely appropriate” to “abuse every single moral or ethical precept that’s involved in what we understand in a free society.”
A Feb. 4, 1983 editorial in the Herald-Examiner terms that a “poorly timed outburst” and observes:
“City Attorney Ira Reiner’s penchant for the spotlight could prove costly if the City Council decides to yank him off the police spying case. Yet that’s just what the council should do.”
The City Council didn’t. Then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lester Olson did, on March 1, 1983. The judge (now an arbitrator/mediator), ruling on a motion by the officers, found that Reiner had created a conflict of interest with his clients and had to be ousted.
A March 21 article in the Times observes:
“It was the first major problem in his 21 months on the job....But the incident has tarnished Reiner’s image as a lawyer and a politician who may run for mayor and resurrected memories of his stormy political past.”
In May of 1983, conflict over the issue erupted between Reiner and Police Chief Daryl Gates with the politico terming the policeman a “loose cannon,” and the latter terming the former a “liar.”
Private law firms were hired to defend the officers. An editorial in the Sept. 1, 1983 edition of the Valley Daily News says:
“Early this year, Reiner ignored the rules of lawyerly behavior and publicly criticized his client—the city and its employees—and now the city is paying handsomely for that mistake.
“....The bills are already pushing the million-dollar mark, and the case is still several months from trial.”
●The other action that drew wide attention also involved unethical behavior as a lawyer. City Planning Director Calvin Hamilton went to Reiner as the city’s lawyer, seeking advice on conflict-of-interest requirements...in essence, asking: “Am I doing anything wrong?” Reiner responded in the affirmative...not privately, but in a public way. He announced on April 19, 1984, that he would prosecute Hamilton on a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge, unless the district attorney went after him for a felony. This was to lead to a 1984 campaign issue and a rebuke of Reiner by a trial judge for violating a client’s confidence.
Moreover, his actions in the PDID case and the Hamilton matter resulted in a public reproval by the State Bar of California on Oct. 17, 1986.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company