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Bradley's Bright Aura Dims in Ethics Scandal : Politics: The year that began so optimistically turned sour as charges and investigations piled up.

December 31, 1989|Cathleen Decker | This article was reported by Times staff writers Rich Connell, Joel Sappell, Jane Fritsch and Myrna Oliver. It was written by Cathleen Decker.

It was to be Tom Bradley's shining year. No longer would he be solely Los Angeles' first black mayor. He would become the city's first five-term mayor, and as 1989 opened he stood enticingly close to that goal.

Bradley's strategic moves deterred his feared opponent, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, from running for mayor. Left only was an April electoral tussle with Councilman Nate Holden, a long-shot candidate. Bradley coasted toward history.

And then came a free fall that no one expected. Although Tom Bradley was reelected, the year that opened so optimistically has disintegrated, its promise poisoned by ethics scandals.

"The events surrounding the mayor touch at . . . Shakespearean tragedy," said Councilwoman Joy Picus. "Had Tom not run for a fifth term, he would have been the most revered man who ever lived in L.A. and a role model for those who didn't have it handed to them on a silver tray.

"The events that have surrounded him have tarnished his name forever, and he can never recover what was lost personally or politically."

Bradley may have won the legal battles thus far--the city attorney decided against criminal prosecution and the mayor ultimately agreed to pay $20,000 for filing erroneous financial forms. But interviews with a cross-section of Los Angeles citizens, from community activists to the mayor's intimates, draw a year-end portrait of a man who has suffered formidable, though not fatal, political wounds.

For many, Bradley has come to represent what can happen when a public servant stays in office so many years.

"History has told us that," said Nikolas Patsaouras, a Bradley fund-raiser. "Once you're in the same spot too long, you become complacent."

The revelations that have rocked Bradley's Adminstration during the last year have each raised essentially the same question: whether the mayor has used his position to benefit his associates and himself.

He took a job in 1988 as the only paid adviser for Far East National Bank, for example. Afterward, officials in the treasurer's office deposited $2 million in the financial institution.

He lobbied the City Council to provide nearly $400,000 in city money to a pet project, an Africa trade task force headed by his friend and business partner Juanita St. John. She has failed to account for $180,000 and has been sued by city officials seeking to recover the money.

Bradley also has helped his close friend, Mary Anne Singer, build a small public relations business by marketing access to him and providing her clients and associates with official favors.

In 1987 and 1988, the mayor used his City Hall clout to engineer the sale of surplus city land to Allen E. Alevy at the same time that the Long Beach entrepreneur was raising tens of thousands of dollars for Bradley's reelection campaign through a series of inner-city carnivals.

A federal grand jury is investigating whether the mayor received insider information to purchase securities through the brokerage firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert. The mayor's investments were handled by an exclusive unit headed by junk bond wizard Michael Milken, who has been indicted on charges of insider trading and securities law violations.

Bradley's fall from public grace was dramatic. In September, the day after City Atty. James K. Hahn issued a report critical of the mayor, which drove Bradley to a locally televised defense address, a Los Angeles Times poll found that only half of those who had voted for Bradley the previous April would do so again. Almost half of those polled said they had an unfavorable impression of Bradley--twice the level of February and four times the level seen in a 1986 survey.

Other surveys showed the same result. "He's gone into decline," said Mervyn Field, who conducts the California Poll.

Some contend that Bradley's fall in the opinion polls was less a direct reaction to the ethical controversy than to discontent over the declining quality of life in Los Angeles.

"The public's frustration with the city and the mayor has finally come together," said political consultant Patrick Caddell.

In Bradley's inner circle, Caddell's words found resonance.

"The electorate is fickle, by and large," said Fran Savitch, a public relations executive and former Bradley aide who is still close to the mayor. "There are a lot of problems in this country and in this city. I think people are dissatisfied in general. I think the mayor had occupied this very special place in their minds, and all of a sudden he may have made an error and people say, 'Aha!' "

But many observers flatly disagree. Bradley, they argue, fell so far so fast because the allegations against him struck at his primary political strength--his reputation for integrity.

"When you build an image of many, many years and all of a sudden that image bursts, you do fall harder," said Larry Berg, head of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

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