Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Reiner, on Vacation, Incommunicado, Puts Powers of DA’s Office in Garcetti’s Hands
By ROGER M. GRACE
109th in a Series
IRA REINER’s true colors showed when the 1986 prosecution of a candidate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination began crumbling. The Los Angeles DA’s face-saving excuse for his office having possibly skewed the outcome of that political race—notwithstanding an insufficiency of evidence to justify a prosecution—was, in essence:
“Don’t blame me, blame my chief deputy—I left things in his hands.”
The defendant was U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler, R-Chatsworth, who proceeded to lose the nomination to a House colleague, Ed Zschau. He, in turn, narrowly lost the Senate seat to incumbent Alan Cranston. Fiedler, with a $20 million warchest, all but $2 million of which was earmarked for spending in the run-off, might well have been elected to the Senate had her reputation not been sullied by the short-lived prosecution of her for purportedly offering $100,000 to a Republican rival, state Sen. Edward M. Davis, a former Los Angeles police chief, to get out of the race. That sum would have paid off his campaign debts.
Reiner’s chief deputy was Gil Garcetti, who in 1992 would wrest the office from his boss.
Key to an understanding of the episode is the extent of Garcetti’s sway.
When Reiner was city controller (1977-81), it was his chief deputy, Antonio Miera, who actually ran the office, according to statements at the time by City Administrative Officer C. Irwin Piper. Likewise, it was apparently Garcetti who ran the DA’s office.
A Los Angeles Times analytical piece of Sept. 3, 1985, contains this:
“Reiner’s delegation of authority has appeared so pervasive that some prosecutors have questioned whether he actively participates in any but the most significant decisions. Indeed, one prosecutor privately compared Reiner to President Reagan—describing him as an official who hands over responsibility for day-to-day administration to his top aides, stepping forward himself mainly as a spokesperson on major—or pet—issues.
“ ‘He doesn’t involve himself in the day-to-day running of the office. It’s pretty clear that Garcetti is in absolute control,’ said a Philibosian partisan, who, like others interviewed, refused to be quoted by name.”
Robert H. Philibosian was Reiner’s predecessor as DA.
The article continues that “Reiner’s top deputies insist that he is clearly in charge, personally makes many of the decisions on important cases and has displayed a strong aptitude for grasping the legal issues involved.”
A Feb. 17, 1986 article in the Times, appearing after the Fieldler prosecution was dropped, contains this passage:
“ ‘Garcetti is the best thing that has ever happened to Ira politically,’ noted one longtime Reiner partisan. ‘Gil’s the manager that Ira never was. He runs the office. The nuts and bolts of being district attorney are taken care of.’ ”
So far, there are only two anonymous assertions that Garcetti ran the office. The Feb. 17 Times article—bearing the clever headline, “Looking Out for No. 2”— quotes Garcetti as saying he accepted the post of chief deputy with the express understanding “that I would be the one that would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the office.” Reiner did not step forward to contradict that.
Never before Reiner, had a DA entrusted so much discretion to a chief deputy.
The Grand Jury’s secret indictment of Fiedler, 48, and her chief aide/fiancé, Paul Clarke, 39, occurred on Thursday, Jan. 23, 1986, and was bared by the Times the next morning, The following Monday, Reiner flitted off to Europe on vacation, leaving Garcetti in charge—and, as it turned out, to take the blame for anything that went wrong. Reiner was tuned out for 18 days.
It is remarkable that the head of any office would go off for such a period of time without checking in.
The Feb. 17 article in the Times reports:
Shortly before Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner departed on his first trip to Europe—a 50th birthday surprise from his wife—he chatted with his chief deputy, Gilbert I. Garcetti.
“I told him I’d call in a real emergency,” Garcetti recalled recently, “but only if it was an emergency.”
During Reiner’s three-week absence, the nation’s largest district attorney’s office was besieged with criticism over its handling of the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, the aborted extradition of the alleged Domino’s Pizza killers and the investigation of Rep. Bobbi Fiedler and her top aide….
Throughout the Fiedler controversy, critics have pointedly and personally attacked Reiner’s judgment and decisions in pursuing the case. And Garcetti has fought back, forcefully defending his boss, his office and himself in interviews with reporters.
Not once, however, did the 17-year prosecutor feel compelled to call Reiner in Europe.
“I am the acting district attorney in [Reiner’s] absence and there hasn’t been an emergency or crisis situation that warrants…calling him,” Garcetti said. “It hasn’t even crossed my mind to call.”
Garcetti appears to have possessed astounding latitude. The corollary of that is that Reiner, to an extraordinary extent, abdicated responsibilities.
Reiner returned to Los Angeles from vacation late on Friday, Feb. 14, and was back at his office the next Tuesday. On Wednesday, he contradicted Garcetti’s public pronouncements that sufficient evidence existed to convict Fiedler…pronouncements such as that quoted in the Herald-Examiner on Feb. 7 that, with respect to Fiedler’s guilt: “[E]vidence can prove it. We believe the evidence shall.”
“We have made a professional assessment of the evidence, and we have determined that the evidence is not sufficient to indict Bobbi Fiedler. The evidence is insufficient for the indictment, and therefore we will recommend that the indictment be dismissed.”
Reiner said there was “significant evidence” which implicated Fiedler in the alleged effort to buy off Davis’s candidacy, but there was not “enough evidence to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The prosecution of Clarke was to continue. It was Clarke whose discussions were secretly recorded by a Davis aide.
An article in the Feb. 20 issue of the Daily News reports:
“Reiner said Garcetti and [Head Deputy District Attorney Steven] Sowders had concurred with his decision during long meetings on Tuesday [Feb. 18] and Wednesday. But a source close to Reiner told the Daily News that Garcetti continued to insist on prosecuting Fiedler.”
The article says that “[s]ources close to Reiner” revealed that over the weekend following his return, the DA read newspaper clippings—including editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post criticizing him for interference in a political campaign. (The Washington Post editorial labeled Fiedler a “victim of a serious injustice.”)
The next day’s issue of the Daily News quotes Garcetti as saying that Reiner “persuaded me” that the prosecution should be dropped. The article says:
“Although he conceded there was ‘a very weak case’ against Fiedler, Garcetti said he insisted on pursuing her prosecution to preserve the integrity of the grand jury system.”
The Feb. 21 issue of the Times reports that Reiner, in an interview, “said he wanted to drop the prosecution of Rep. Bobbi Fiedler four weeks ago, as soon as he learned that the county grand jury had disregarded his recommendation not to indict her” but was persuaded by top aides not to snub the Grand Jury’s finding.
The article reflects Reiner’s take on the case at an early point: that an indictment should be sought of Clarke, but not of Fiedler; that after the Grand Jury indicted both, and before going off to Europe, he instructed that an investigation as to the strength of the case continue; that when he got back, he elicited concurrences by upper level staff members, including Garcetti, that if the case were presented now, with the present state of the evidence, there would be no filing. The article quotes Fiedler’s lawyer, Harland Braun, as saying:
“I think Ira Reiner is right that you don’t prosecute a case that you don’t believe in. But I think he should have been right three weeks ago….This [delay] allowed her to twist in the winds several weeks waiting for him to come back. What if someone had mistakenly indicted Ira Reiner and then went incommunicado for three weeks. How would he feel?”
Picking up on Braun’s remark, a Feb. 23 Times editorial says that Reiner took off on his vacation, “leaving Fiedler twisting slowly in the political wind.” The editorial concludes:
“Reiner and his aides say they huddled for hours, weighing evidence and deciding that they did not have enough to get a conviction. That being the case, they should have blocked the grand jury action a long time ago.”
On Feb. 26, then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Altman (now a private judge) dismissed charges against Fiedler, as sought by both sides. He also granted a defense motion to scuttle the prosecution of Clarke on the ground that the statute which rendered it a felony to “solicit” someone, for “any money or other valuable consideration…not to become or to withdraw as a candidate for public office” did not apply to a mere “offer” of an inducement to get out of a race. Although the distinction between a solicitation and an offer was questionable, the DA’s Office announced on March 14 it would not appeal the dismissal.
Reiner repudiated Garcetti’s utterances on the Fiedler case during his absence. In an interview with the Daily News, reported March 2, Reiner is quoted as saying:
“The comments that were made by the professional staff [i.e., Garcetti] about the evidence in the case should not have been made. That is not the way I would have handled it. That is not the way I do handle those things. That was a mistake.”
The case would not have been handled in any way other than how Reiner would have handled it if he been monitoring what was going on. Phoning in would have been a good idea. He might even have learned of the course the case was taking by opening up an English language newspaper. But Reiner was too busy taking in the sights to give a thought to what was going on back home.
It might well be that Garcetti did err in trumpeting the strength of a case that was, in fact, weak…and recognized by the public to be weak after transcripts of Clarke’s taped remarks—ambiguous remarks—were released. Nonetheless, for Reiner to publicly demean Garcetti for actions he took after being granted near-carte blanche authority in Reiner’s absence just was indefensible.
That’s like the pilot on a three-hour flight castigating the co-pilot for how the plane was flown while the pilot was asleep.
A Daily News editorial on March 4 scolds the DA for having failed to “have seen that the case was not worth pursuing at such great risk to his credibility,” remarking:
“The initial evidence was so nebulous as to be useless. To build the case into something prosecutable, Reiner’s investigators wired an aide to state Sen. Ed Davis, one of Fiedler’s opponents in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, in an effort to gather evidence against Fiedler. The effort failed, and Reiner ended up looking very much as if he had been enlisted in someone else’s political dirty trick—in a word, used.”
Severe criticism came from Reiner’s fellow Democrat, KABC-TV political commentator Bill Press, whose March 9 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times begins:
“The great Bobbi Fiedler Campaign Caper is over, and the person most hurt by it is neither Fiedler nor state Sen. Ed Davis, but Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner—wounded by his own poor performance.
“Throughout the Fiedler affair, we did not see the tough, smooth professional we’ve come to expect in the Los Angeles district attorney. We saw, instead, a Hamlet-like figure who didn’t know when to start, when to stop or when to shut up.
“Indeed, Reiner’s handling of the Fiedler case was inept enough to cast serious doubts on his ability to lead the nation’s largest local prosecutorial office.”
Press, who went on to become chair of the Democratic Party in California in 1993-96 and is now a radio talk show host, saw a number of gaffes by Reiner. The article says the first one was getting involved, at all, explaining:
“As anyone with political campaign experience knows—as Reiner must know—charges of cheating and corruption fly fast and furious during any election campaign. The unwritten rule among prosecutors is: Don’t take campaign charges seriously and never interfere in an ongoing election campaign—unless you’ve really got the goods.”
Reiner, he observes, didn’t.
The statute relied upon in the prosecution of Fiedler, Elections Code Sec. 18205, is the same one giving rise to the current prosecution of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Harvey Silberman for allegedly attempting to deter Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Serena Murillo from running last year for the seat he was seeking by offering to pay her filing fee if she would get into another race.
The present district attorney, Steve Cooley, ordered an investigation and, when it appeared that there was a basis for a prosecution, followed the “unwritten rule” by putting the matter on the back burner.
After the election, in which Silberman prevailed, Cooley—who had endorsed his deputy, Murillo—handed the matter over to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company