Tuesday, September 14, 2010
1999: Garcetti Primed to Seek Third Term…but Impediments to Victory Abound
By ROGER M. GRACE
134th in a Series
GIL GARCETTI—a man who won in a battle with cancer, diagnosed in 1980—a man with spunk and optimism, undertook what many saw as a quest destined to fail: seeking a third term as district attorney.
By the end of 1999, Garcetti had two challengers: Deputy District Attorney Steve Cooley, who declared on Oct. 6, and DDA Barry Groveman, who announced his candidacy Dec. 8. Even at that early point, vulnerability on the part of the incumbent was manifest.
Many continued to hold him to blame for what 12 other people did. A jury in 1995 acquitted O.J. Simpson of a double murder which the vast majority of the public was convinced he committed.
Cooley, the man who defeated Garcetti in the 2000 run-off and is now in his third term (and is the Republican nominee for state attorney general), says of his predecessor:
“I think he was absolutely convinced O.J. Simpson was going to be convicted, that was going to be the case that would give him the statewide exposure, then he could ride that case right to attorney general, and I think he got just too heavily involved in it.”
When the case was lost, Cooley says, Garcetti “went down with it, in a sense.” He notes that “it didn’t knock him down the first time, but almost knocked him down when he ran against John Lynch,” a deputy DA, in 1996.
“After that election, where he won by the lowest margin, smallest margin, in L.A. County history—less than one-tenth of one percent—against an underfunded no-name like John Lynch,” Cooley remarks, “it was pretty clear that he was there for the taking—which I did, four years later, by a landslide.”
As of late 1999, Garcetti had accumulated far more baggage than he had toted in 1996—and in that year’s contest, he outspent his challenger 6-1 and garnered only 4,766 more votes than Lynch out of 2,244,496 ballots cast.
Here’s what he was up against in the race ahead….
●Belmont: There was a widespread perception that Garcetti was simply sleeping through the uproar over disclosures of toxic chemicals at the site of a partially constructed high school, construction that was halted in light of the revelations. A Daily News editorial of Feb. 22, 1999, conveys these observations:
“SUPERVISOR Michael D. Antonovich has called for the grand jury to investigate the obscene debacle surrounding the Belmont Learning Center project.
“Thank heavens at least one elected official has the moxie to question why District Attorney Gil Garcetti has remained silent on opening an investigation.”
The editorial goes on to say:
“With a $200 million price tag, Belmont carries the dubious distinction of being the costliest high school construction project in the country.
“Costly, contaminated and possibly criminal. What more do you need to launch an investigation?”
A June 2, 1999, editorial in the same newspaper presses the effort to gain action by the DA:
“[T]he Belmont stench is a big, big, big problem for Gil, who wants a third term as district attorney.
“For months now, Garcetti’s office has had information on possible criminal conduct in construction of Belmont, which is being built on a highly toxic oil field.
“But the DA so far doesn’t want to convene a grand jury.
“And the DA doesn’t want to open an investigation because he’s not sure it’s warranted.
“He’s still reviewing the situation, even as the mountain of publicly disclosed evidence grows higher and higher.”
A Sept. 17 Daily News editorial likens Garcetti’s inaction in connection with Belmont to his failure to probe the MTA, saying:
“All during the years of subway construction, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was rife with dirty deals and insider deals that deserved vigorous investigation. Despite claims that federal and county authorities were probing the agency, nothing ever came of the supposed investigations.
“That same passive attitude has marked the growing evidence of corruption within the Los Angeles Unified School District and the scandal over construction of the Belmont Learning Center.
“The ultimate purveyor of justice, District Attorney Gil Garcetti, has been mute in recent months as the investigation into the Belmont scandal intensified, even as he seeks another term in office.”
A news article in that paper on Sept. 30 reports that a grand jury investigation had been launched. Garcetti had no comment. Antonovich—who presented motions in both February and June, approved by the board, calling for such a probe—did comment, saying:
“The taxpayers deserve to know who is responsible for this chronic waste of tax dollars and who is jeopardizing the health and safety of the staff and students who would occupy that facility.”
A further Daily News editorial, on Dec. 15, 1999, declares:
“[Los Angeles Unified School District]’s inspector general handed L.A.’s shrinking-violet district attorney, Gil Garcetti, a smoking gun Tuesday: a 671-page report outlining massive fraud during construction of the Belmont Learning Center.
“Don Mullinax, director of the Internal Audit and Special Investigations Unit, basically found at least $2 million in fraudulent billing.”
The editorial has these brickbats for the DA:
“Garcetti watched while Mullinax did his work.
“The district attorney made it clear that he had no intention of investigating Belmont unless someone handed him clear and convincing evidence that criminal misdeeds were committed.
“Mullinax has handed him that evidence. Mullinax said he had probable cause to believe that certain acts or omissions violated criminal laws….
“Mullinax has handed Garcetti a blueprint to follow the money, follow the fraud, follow the culprits who thought nothing of robbing children of a quality education.”
●Rampart: Some had the feeling that Garcetti was lax in his handling of the scandal over corruption at the police station that was then located at 2710 West Temple St.
A column of Sept, 26, 1999, by Matt Krasnowski, carried by Copley News Service, comments:
“This city’s largest police corruption scandal in decades seems to grow by the day—with new details and allegations of unjustified shootings, frame-ups and beatings by officers out of the department’s tough Rampart Division.
“Now, some of the mess created by crooked cops is splashing up on District Attorney Gil Garcetti.
“Police critics have always trashed prosecutors for being too closely allied with officers and fostering an atmosphere where cops feel comfortable fibbing on the stand.
“But last week, even Police Chief Bernard Parks said he was disappointed that Garcetti’s office refused to prosecute an officer who beat a man in a Rampart interrogation room. Prosecutors said there wasn’t enough evidence for a trial.
“Then, Garcetti was hammered by city and county officials who said he shouldn’t have eliminated a special unit in his office that investigates all officer-involved shootings.”
Garcetti tried to explain that he ended the “roll-out” program, which he had headed when a deputy, strictly for budgetary reasons. (The program was instituted in 1979 by then-DA John Van de Kamp.)
On Sept. 28, the board instructed Garcetti to find the money to fund the program. The DA’s Office said it would be operating again in a matter of months.
An Orange County Register column by Douglas W. Kmiec, appearing on Oct. 4, 1999, argues:
“Budget shortfall or not, it was shortsighted of District Attorney Gil Garcetti to abolish the ‘roll out’ units responsible for investigating police shootings. This is especially true now since the Supreme Court has made it more difficult for the watchdog media to ‘ride along’ with cops making arrests and searches.”
The broad array of misdeeds on the part of Rampart detectives, including planting of evidence, could not have been uncovered or thwarted through the roll-out program, the discontinuance of which drew inordinate attention.
●Child Support: An independent audit by Price Waterhouse in 1997 showed that Garcetti’s efforts at collecting child support, a task entrusted to his office, were feeble.
The Aug. 22, 1997, edition of the Los Angeles Times quotes Antonovich as charging that “the district attorney’s business-as-usual approaches to child support collection procedures are inadequate, are a failure.” The Fifth District supervisor would on future occasions take the DA to task for neglecting that area of his operations.
The Board of Supervisors on Sept. 9 authorized the hiring by Garcetti of 165 new workers, as well as the filling of 70 vacant spots, in the collection division—but denied him the roughly $7 million he sought in additional funding to pay the workers. He already had a $270 million budget, and county lawmakers wanted the DA to divert some of those funds to the child-support collection program.
Through the succeeding months, board members grew increasingly impatient over Garcetti’s lack of progress in fixing the system. A Nov 11, 1998, Times article begins:
“Amid unrelenting criticism of Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti’s child support program, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors moved Tuesday to test whether private industry could do a better job collecting money that is owed to hundreds of thousands of needy children.”
The following Tuesday, Garcetti was at the board meeting, arguing against criticisms of his performance. Two days later, on Nov. 19, 1998, an editorial in the Times declares:
“Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti now has 20 calendar days to present a plan to improve woeful child support collection efforts. Too bad he didn’t get an early start by forgoing his 45-minute, bluster-filled rant before the county supervisors Tuesday.”
The editorial goes on to say:
“The facts? Los Angeles has one of the poorest-performing child support collection units in the state. Garcetti’s staff fails to collect support in nine of 10 cases. It even holds onto millions of dollars of collected support payments that should go to families. Garcetti’s office uses flashy hardball tactics on impoverished men, including some who his office knows are not the biological fathers.”
An action was filed Feb. 19, 1999, by a man who alleged that he had kept up on his court-ordered child support payments but, nonetheless, through a gaffe, faced action by the DA’s Office. The complaint alleges:
“Despite all of the payments having been made, on November 9, 1997, the Los Angeles County District Attorneys Office, Bureau of Family Support Operations, filed a Notice of Garnishment on plaintiff’s wages for child support arrearages as of October 31, 1997, in the sum of $64,482.26, and commenced deducting $2,069.46 per month from his paycheck.”
The father did more than attempt to get his own account straightened out. His attorney was Richard I. Fine, then located in West Los Angeles (now residing on Bauchet Street). The matter was turned into a taxpayer’s action, seeking injunctive and writ relief…and, of course, attorney fees for Fine.
According to the complaint:
“Plaintiff is duly authorized to bring this action as a taxpayer of the state pursuant to section 526a of the California Code of Civil Procedure to require GARCETTI to immediately disburse approximately $25 million which he is ‘holding’ as ‘Child Support collections on Hold’ and which he is not paying to the custodial parents to whom a portion of such monies are due, the County of Los Angeles Welfare Department, to whom a portion of such monies are due, and to the payors of such funds who, by law, must be paid a refund of monies paid in the event that the custodial parent is not located within six months from the time of payment.”
The action ultimately failed, but as of the time candidates were gearing up for the 2000 election, the action was proceeding. It did illuminate what would appear to have been foot-dragging in the DA’s Office in handing funds over to the intended recipients or returning them when those persons could not be located.
Employees in the Palmdale office of the DA’s Bureau of Family Support persuaded custodial parents who were receiving support moneys to travel to downtown L.A. to testify as to the splendid job Garcetti’s office was doing—even offering the parents transportation, baby-sitting services, and scripts.
A June 25, 1999, Daily News article quotes Antonovich, whose district includes Palmdale, as expressing indignation that “[p]eople who are dependent are being coerced to drive [to Los Angeles] and asked to testify,” commenting:
“I want the child-support system reformed. Lack of leadership has left the bureau in shambles, with less than 10 percent of family-support funds being collected. Those who are entitled to money aren’t receiving it.”
Here are the opening paragraphs in a couple 1999 Times stories:
Aug. 7: “The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office on Friday announced that more than 400 parents were arrested on suspicion of failing to pay child support in a weeklong roundup by about 150 of the agency’s investigators and sheriff’s deputies. [¶] But the sweep, which cost the county more than $600,000, was described by some investigators as a failed and dangerous publicity stunt that produced only a fraction of the targeted arrests and included plenty of blunders—among them, the wrongful arrest of a Getty Museum official’s spouse.
Aug. 16: “Despite Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti’s insistence that his child support office is improving, it remains the least effective such operation in California, according to a new numbers from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.”
Yet, with all this, Garcetti decided to run, and apparently thought he would win.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company