COMPTON — City Council members closed ranks around a colleague this week and refused to let Councilman Floyd A. James be questioned about his role in the drug arrest of a woman who had testified against him in a separate criminal case.
By a 4-0 vote, the council denied defense attorney Thomas M. Regele's request that James be called to answer questions under oath in the council's public-nuisance proceeding against Francesca Houpe, a 34-year-old divorced mother of two.
In essence, council members said they didn't believe that James' testimony would be relevant.
Houpe was accused last August of growing three marijuana plants in her backyard. Since then, the Los Angeles County district attorney has twice declined to file charges because of insufficient evidence. But the council has continued to press what is the first step in a civil process that could ultimately lead to confiscation of Houpe's house as an alleged threat to public safety.
During testimony on Tuesday, Compton Police Chief Ivory Webb confirmed that it was James who initially alerted officers to the alleged marijuana by passing on a tip from a then-confidential informant.
City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr. took the stand also and confirmed that James had telephoned him to ask if such an arrest might be grounds for a nuisance action.
"He asked me a question," Fenderson said. "He said, 'Does the cultivation or growing of marijuana fall under the purview of our nuisance ordinance?' And I responded in the affirmative.
"He had mentioned to me that, 'Well, you know the lady who testified against me? I have an anonymous informant who has brought this information to me.' And at that time he inquired as to what he could do," Fenderson said. "I advised the councilman to refer it directly to the Police Department."
Fenderson said James never mentioned Houpe by name. But a short time after that conversation, Fenderson said he received a copy of her arrest report and asked the council to launch proceedings against her.
Of 18 cases filed at that point in the 15-month history of the city's nuisance-abatement ordinance, Fenderson acknowledged, Houpe's was the only one that did not involve either a sale of drugs or repeated other problems. Compton Police Sgt. Hourie Taylor, who leads the crime unit that arrested Houpe and handles many drug investigations, testified that he did not consider her arrest serious enough to warrant a nuisance proceeding.
A few weeks before Houpe was arrested in the marijuana matter, she testified against James at a preliminary hearing in a felony election fraud case that remains pending. James is accused of sending two fraudulent mailers to voters in the 1985 municipal election and of vote buying in a scheme to give record albums to electors--Houpe, among others--in return for their pledge of support. A co-defendant recently pleaded no contest to a lesser charge. James maintains that he is innocent. A hearing in that case is set for Jan. 22.
Regele argued that James' role in the marijuana case against Houpe was reason enough to seek his testimony. But Councilman Robert L. Adams quickly disagreed.
"Mister mayor, I would not like to see Councilman James questioned in this matter," Adams said. "He has disqualified himself (from voting on the case). As a council person, it is his right to report anything . . . to the city attorney or to the city manager or to anybody over here.
"I would not like to see the councilman interrogated at this time. I don't think it's fair. I think he's been fair in disqualifying himself from this hearing and I think that he should remain out of it . . . "
Councilman Maxcy D. Filer complained that Regele had not included James on a list of prospective witnesses submitted at the start of the hearings.
Regele replied that his client had a right to question anyone who might have knowledge about the case.
"Whether or not he's a council person or whether or not he's participating directly on the voting in this hearing makes no difference if he has knowledge, personal knowledge, firsthand knowledge of facts that have a bearing on this hearing," Regele said.
"He (James) cannot cloak himself . . . merely because he is a City Council person. If the City Council is going to take it upon itself to initiate (nuisance) hearings or investigate drug-related activities, they're necessarily going to become . . . witnesses. And my client has an absolute right to cross-examine that individual regarding the facts of this case."
Another witness unavailable to Regele Tuesday was the original confidential informant against Houpe, businesswoman Victoria Adams. Although she had been subpoenaed to continue her testimony on Tuesday, Adams did not appear. The council agreed to meet Jan. 6 to hear the balance of her testimony.
Councilman Adams said he was concerned that the hearing might appear to be "a kangaroo court," so he agreed that Regele deserved another chance to question the absent businesswoman.