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Bernson Lawsuit Accuses Landfill Owner of Libel : Sunshine Canyon: The councilman contends that a report leaked to reporters by Browning-Ferris Industries contained false claims on his travel spending.

January 18, 1992|JACK CHEEVERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson sued the operator of the Sunshine Canyon garbage dump and two political consultants for libel Friday, charging that they leaked to news reporters a dossier containing false claims about Bernson's spending of public and private funds on travel.

Bernson's suit, which seeks $40 million in damages, alleges that Browning-Ferris Industries, BFI Vice President Les Bittenson and consultants Lynn Wessell and Mark Ryavec compiled and leaked a 19-page report falsely saying that Bernson repeatedly double-billed the city and his private campaign kitty for extensive personal travel.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, marks the latest blow in a bitter, long-running battle between the 13-year incumbent and BFI, which has sought to expand its dump in Granada Hills over the vigorous opposition of the lawmaker--who represents the area--and local residents.

BFI attorney Bill Hutton denied that the firm had anything to do with the travel dossier.

"We haven't even seen it, much less written it," he said.

Ryavec, who said he was paid by BFI in 1990 to lobby city officials and community groups for an expansion of the dump, also denied involvement. Wessell could not be reached for comment Friday.

Bernson declined comment on the suit. His lawyer, Neil Papiano, charged that the travel report was passed to several newspapers and television stations in Los Angeles, including The Times, in late 1988 or early 1989.

Papiano said Bernson's political career and personal reputation were damaged as a result of stories that Papiano contends were based on the dossier, and that the councilman was forced to drop plans to explore a 1994 race for lieutenant governor.

In addition to being leaked to the media, Papiano said the report was sent to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, which opened an investigation. The FPPC has conducted five separate inquiries into charges of various improprieties against Bernson, but each time closed its files without formal charges.

In the late 1980s, Bernson was widely criticized in newspaper reports for spending lavish amounts of privately raised campaign funds on travel to Paris, Hong Kong, Italy, London, Beijing, Israel, Canada and U.S. cities including Hilo, Hawaii, and New Orleans.

Bernson denied that his expenses were excessive but sharply reduced spending on travel in the wake of those stories.

In 1990, The Times reported that between 1987 and 1989, Bernson spent more than $120,000 in campaign funds on travel--far more than anyone else on the 15-member City Council. His spending was nearly three times as high as Mayor Tom Bradley's and exceeded that of then-Gov. George Deukmejian for the same period.

Two Times reporters who wrote that article examined the dossier but concluded that it contained no clear-cut examples of double-billing and did not include its allegations in their story. The dossier, which was unsigned, appeared to have drawn most of its information from public records.

According to the lawsuit, the dossier said Bernson "not only frequently travels to international tourist destinations . . . he travels in style: expensive hotels, meals and first-class transportation."

Bernson's travels were an issue during his unusually hard-fought reelection campaign last year. His opponent, school board member Julie Korenstein, attacked them at a news conference outside a pricey Northridge restaurant where records show Bernson had eaten numerous meals paid for with campaign funds.

Despite outspending Korenstein heavily, Bernson won by just 746 votes.

Papiano insisted that the lawsuit was "not a political counterattack" against BFI, which paid more than $13,000 for anti-Bernson phone-bank and precinct-walking operations in the last days of the campaign.

Papiano said Bernson deliberately delayed filing the suit until long after the election so he could not be accused of political retaliation against the company.

"This is a legal matter," he said, adding that Bernson was using personal funds to finance the suit.

Papiano said the dossier was compiled and leaked by BFI and the consultants in an attempt to discredit Bernson because he "was the prime opponent" of expanding the Sunshine Canyon landfill.

Last year, Bernson helped persuade city officials to file suit against BFI and Los Angeles County to prevent a 200-acre expansion of the dump, which straddles the city-county border.

Papiano said he had "some pretty specific evidence" that BFI was the source of the dossier, but declined to give details.

Hutton, BFI's lawyer, said he conducted an extensive internal investigation at the firm last year after Papiano informed him of Bernson's complaints about the dossier.

"I could find no evidence that we produced it, or that anybody authorized to do work for us produced or disseminated it," Hutton said.

Ryavec, the political consultant, said he had nothing to do with the report. But he said the firm has employed many consultants, and he was unaware of what the others "may have engaged in."

Bernson's suit said the councilman suffered "great upset, shock, mental suffering . . . shame, humiliation and embarrassment" as a result of the dossier.

It said his cancellation of plans for the lieutenant governor's race "injured both his personal and professional reputation and career," and that he has since spent "considerable time and finances to rehabilitate and restore his character."

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