Tuesday, December 1, 2009
DA Reiner, in 1985: Quieter Than in Past Posts, Still a Seeker of Publicity
By ROGER M. GRACE
107th in a Series
IRA K. REINER on Dec. 3, 1984, became the 39th district attorney of Los Angeles County, sworn in by his wife, then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne (now a private judge).
The hell-raiser and grandstander of the past (as Los Angeles city controller and Los Angeles city attorney), started out as the new DA by stepping softly. An April 14, 1985 piece in the Daily News bears the headline, “All is quiet on the Reiner front,” with a smaller headline below (a “deck”) declaring: “First 4 months as DA marked by lack of headline-making news.”
An “assessment” of Reiner in the Sept. 3, 1985 issue of the Los Angeles Times says:
“[M]ost prosecutors interviewed by the Times gave Reiner high marks for what they regard as the quiet, professional manner in which he and his top aides have managed the office.”
Quietness was not something the public had come to associate with Reiner.
The article continues:
“If Reiner has been less vocal, he has hardly been silent. Like a cagey prizefighter biding his time in the early rounds, he continues to throw his share of stinging jabs.”
The Metropolitan Water District was the recipient in 1985 of one of his “jabs.” Reiner took a stance against the action it took in reintroducing chloramine (chlorine, neutralized with ammonia) into the water supply to kill bacteria. Going beyond that, he accused the MWD of actively misleading the public by representing that the chemical was safe. Reiner’s remarks were set forth in a letter to the MWD’s Board of Directors, with copies supplied to the press on June 4, 1985.
Chloramine was initially introduced by water suppliers throughout the state in November, 1984, but use of it was halted, by state mandate, the following month when kidney dialysis centers reported that it endangered their patients. After the state became satisfied that filtering systems were now in place at the centers, it gave the go-ahead on May 31 for resumption of adding of the chemical to water supplies.
“MWD literature claiming that chloramines are safe is not justified by current scientific literature.”
The state health director contradicted the DA as to what scientific literature said and termed Reiner’s statements “unfounded and regrettable.”
It could be that Reiner will, in the end, be proven right as to the danger of chloramines. A controversy persists, fanned largely by persons outside the scientific/medical community, whose warnings are based on extrapolations from facts stated in government reports.
The question here is: what was the DA doing weighing in on this issue?
His spokesman, Schyler Sprowles, is quoted in the June 8 issue of the Times as saying that Reiner “has a responsibility in the area of environmental concerns,” adding:
“He made a very clear case a number of years ago before taking office that he would not hesitate to speak out in areas affecting public health.”
Sprowles is reported to have remarked that Reiner “has never been elected to keep his opinions to himself, and I think that’s what the public expects of him.”
Does the public really expect of a district attorney, the county’s chief prosecutor, positions on matters outside the scope of the criminal justice system (and outside the ambit of its limited civil powers)? I doubt it.
Reiner had a First Amendment right, of course, to take a stance against the dumping of a chemical in the public water supply and to assert that MWD provided false assertions of safety. That right should have been exercised, however, in his capacity as a private citizen, not as district attorney. Whenever a DA alleges dishonesty in connection with official conduct within the county, there’s the obvious prospect of a perception that the dishonesty is prosecutable. After all, the role of a DA is that of a prosecutor, not a commentator.
But, of course, if Reiner had made clear he was speaking merely as an individual, he would have impliedly confessed the inappropriateness of utilizing county resources, such as Sprowles, in promoting his private views. He would hardly have wanted to type his own press releases and have them run off at a Postal Instant Printing shop.
“Ira Reiner, will you please sit down?” a June 6 editorial in the Herald Examiner requests, continuing:
“Enough of your grandstanding! You were elected district attorney to prosecute criminals, not to stir up public anxiety. Your accusations against the Metropolitan Water District—that it misled the public about the long-term safety of chloramines in the drinking water—the day after the chemical was reintroduced into the water supply, were ill-timed and self-serving.”
An editorial in the Times on June 9 says:
“Whatever evidence exists about the safety of chloramines supports the water district, and Reiner’s unnecessary alarmism is more misleading that the Met’s literature.”
Nearly a year later, the Daily News conducted a wide-ranging interview with Reiner, and his stance on chloramine came up. An article on March 2, 1986, quotes Reiner as saying:
“We had quiet negotiations with the MWD for an extended period of time and we were unable to get them to move so we released the letter so they would be in a position of having to publicly defend a position that was very confusing.
“It [his letter] is utterly reasonable. What is unreasonable is their response. They reacted like a stuck pig. Why? Because the idea that these kinds of political decisions get outside of board rooms and into the arena of public discussion is not something that they accept easily and so they start yelling and screaming.”
It’s strange that there were no press reports at the time of “yelling and screaming” by anyone connected with the MWD. The immediate response came at a June 4, 1985 press conference held by Michael McGuire, water quality manager for the MWD. He pointed to such facts as the use of chloramine in more than 70 cities, with a combined population of about 26 million persons, and that in Denver and Portland, the chemical had been in the water supplies for more than 60 years, with no known ill-effects. He compared chloramine with “granular activated-carbon treatment” in terms of efficacy and cost. Did he behave like a “stuck pig”?
Was the local decision to add a chemical to the water supply, as encouraged by the state, a “political” one, as characterized by Reiner…or was it a governmental decision? No facts emerged indicating that it was other than the latter.
Most significantly, Reiner provided no hint as to what business he had using the prestige of his office to promote his questioning of an MWD decision when he had no plans to launch any criminal or civil proceedings related to the matter. He did say that “[w]hen I became district attorney I made it abundantly clear that our office was going to be involved substantially in the area of public health,” as if that pronouncement by himself authorized him to act as a one-man civil grand jury.
Other comments by Reiner trigger the impression that while President Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator, he wanted to be perceived as the Great Intimidator. The Daily News article quotes him as saying:
“It’s always helpful at a certain point to hold someone’s feet to the fire because the next time around that’s always in their mind.
“That’s the way I operate. I don’t sneak up on anybody. Going in everybody understands that. I am candid and I have always been candid and that is important.”
Jalisco Mexican Products, Inc., located in Artesia, was also a Reiner “jab”—a blow which might be viewed as a below-the-belt punch. In the end, Reiner prevailed in the bout—in a relatively small way—but his actions on the way to that victory warrant scrutiny.
On June 13, 1985, the California Department of Food and Agriculture ordered a statewide recall of two types of Jalisco-brand cheeses after they were linked to an epidemic of listeriosis, caused by bacteria, resulting in several deaths; the next day, all Jalisco products were recalled.
An Associated Press dispatch from Los Angeles on Sunday, June 22, says:
Leaky equipment and faulty pasteurization were found at a plant that made contaminated cheese believed responsible for the deaths of 43 people since March, officials said today.
Preliminary tests at the plant of the manufacturer, Jalisco Mexican Products, in Artesia, Calif., showed pinholes in pasteurization equipment, according to a spokesman for the state Food and Agriculture Department.
“Anytime you have pinholes you have the possibility of contamination, because raw milk could contact with hot milk,” the spokesman, Jan Wessell, said. Other tests found phosphatase, an enzyme normally deactivated by pasteurization, in product samples, Miss Wessell said.
In a June 24 AP report, the head of the food and drug section of the state Department of Health Services is quoted as saying of the recall in California: “We’re close to 100 percent now [statewide]. Los Angeles County is done.”
Fault on the part of Jalisco was manifest; the possibility loomed that fault was of such a degree as to amount to criminality. A June 26 report in the Times says that the director of the state Food and Agriculture Department had asked Reiner’s office to investigate.
Aha! Here was an opportunity for Reiner to do what he loved to do: make public statements and glean publicity.
On June 26, Reiner publicly declared:
“Yesterday the district attorney’s office executed a search warrant of the Jalisco cheese plant. The purpose of the warrant was to see certain records.
“The investigation took a turn over the weekend. Some tests revealed that the pasteurization equipment at Jalisco was in perfectly good working order and would not produce non-pasteurized products.
“Another test shows that there was non-pasteurized milk in Jalisco cheese. An audit was conducted of the receipts and various records of Jalisco. It turned out that they received a substantial amount of [raw] milk product in excess of their machine’s capacity to pasteurize.”
The statement begins by telling of the DA’s investigators executing a search warrant, then sets forth what the “investigation” turned up over the weekend—implying that the investigation which proved fruitful was the one he was just referring to—that is, his investigation. In truth, tests performed on Sunday, June 22, were conducted by health officials.
Reiner’s pronouncement that the tests showed that the pasteurizing equipment was “in perfectly good working order” was contrary to the actual finding that the equipment had “pinholes” and was defective. But including that factor in his analysis would have dampened his theory that raw milk might have been intentionally, and criminally, used.
The DA asserted that about 10 percent more raw milk had been purchased from Alta Dena than the plant could pasteurize, commenting:
“That raises the obvious question of whether they used that non-pasteurized milk in their product.
“It raises a very strong suspicion that it was put in there deliberately. At this point we do not have sufficient facts to determine who was responsible.”
He added “[T]o the extent that we are able to prove that someone knowingly was involved in this activity they will be prosecuted.”
A “suspicion” of criminal wrongdoing, particularly a “very strong” one, gives rise to a duty on the part of law enforcement authorities to pursue an investigation to determine whether the suspicion is well-founded. Customarily, however, prosecutors do not publicize their present, unestablished, hunches. It is a time to look, not speak, to see what evidence develops.
Reiner’s statements could have had no effect other than to create such negativity toward Jalisco as to kill any chance it might have had of redeeming itself in the public’s eye.
A March 4, 1986 editorial in the Daily News says of Reiner:
“Last June, shortly after an outbreak of listeriosis linked to cheese from Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., he said he had ‘a very strong suspicion’ that Jalisco was deliberately making cheese with unpasteurized milk. After more than eight months, he has not followed up that accusation with formal charges.
“Loose talk from Reiner did not ruin Jalisco [which went into bankruptcy] all by itself, but it certainly didn’t help. Gerald F. Uelman, a Loyola University Law School professor, says, ‘Careers may be ruined, reputations are harmed and people suffer severe economic losses’ because of DAs who don’t hold their tongues. Reiner boasts of being candid, and there’s nothing wrong with candor in a public official. But the public needs a DA who can weigh the impact of what he says and does.”
Later that month, Reiner did bring charges, and triumphed, in the end. He obtained convictions of two persons…for misdemeanor Health Code violations. No intentional wrongdoing had been uncovered. The chief cheese maker on May 27 pled “no contest” to 12 counts—while insisting that he was oblivious to any wrongdoing on his part. On May 20, he was sentenced by a Bellflower Municipal Court judge to 60 days in jail and a $9,300 fine. The president of the company, who pled “no contest” on April 17, on June 19, 1986, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $18,800.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company