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Civil Service Loses Its Innocence

June 29, 1997|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press.)

The Whitewater River scandal has run through Los Angeles. Last week, City Controller Rick Tuttle, in a report of his investigation, asserted that Webster L. Hubbell, friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton and former high-ranking Justice Department official, improperly received a lobbying contract from the Airport Commission and was improperly paid for services largely unrendered, all of which was covered up by longtime Civil Service employees. It's the kind of story that has dogged the Clinton administration, but it's new to this city, which prides itself on the honesty and integrity of its Civil Service. Hubbell's fee amounted to little more than $25,000, but the pattern of conduct that led to his job is all-too characteristic of Mayor Richard Riordan's private-sector approach to government, one that has important implications for the future reputation of the Civil Service.

The mayor likes to tell a story of how some businessmen complained to him about no-parking signs on their street that they felt unduly burdened their customers. He asked an aide to look into the complaint; the aide came back with a long report explaining why the signs had to stay. The mayor objected. The aide went back, but this time, after an inquiry from Riordan, assured his boss that the problem had been taken care of. Pressed for an explanation, the aide admitted that he and his kids had gone down to the street on a Saturday night and taken down the signs themselves.

The story always gets a laugh and Riordan always assures his audience that he and his administration are there to make things happen: make the city work for the residents; make the bureaucrats shape up.

Ted Stein, then a senior Riordan advisor and head of the Airport Commission, offered Hubbell the lobbying job without advising his fellow commissioners, sent Hubbell a confirming letter of employment from the Mayor's Office without copying the Department of Airports or the Mayor's Office and without getting a City Council-approved Records Retention Schedule, as required by the city's administrative code. Four months later, when Hubbell pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and tax evasion stemming from overbillings at his former law firm, Stein terminated the agreement. At the time, Stein had three monthly invoices for Hubbell's lobbying work, none of which had been processed for payment. He submitted them to the city controller six weeks after Hubbell's termination. Tuttle's office rejected payment because they lacked detail about what work had been performed. Although neither Jerald Lee, deputy executive director of Riordan's administration, nor John Driscoll, the Airport general manager, were directly involved in hiring Hubbell or in his supposed lobbying work, both became entwined in trying to get him paid.

Whether the motive for hiring Hubbell was harmless, payback or self-serving, it is clear that the rules to safeguard how the city does business were broken.

To be sure, Civil Service rules are cumbersome. They can make decision-making an excruciatingly tedious process. It's assumed that if the rules are followed, everyone who does business with the city will receive equal treatment, and that the civil servants who carry out the rules will be immune from charges of unfairness. The Hubbell episode shows us, however, that if civil servants break the rules, they do not necessarily face any punishment if their transgressions were done at the behest of politicians. Civil Service was created to protect government workers from just such influence.

Suppose Driscoll or Lee had declined to back up Stein's actions? Odds are, they would not have lost their jobs, but neither would they stand much chance of promotion or a salary increase. They might be fired over an unrelated matter by another politician with an interest in getting them out of the way. There is no Civil Service equivalent to the military code of justice that requires a soldier to disobey an immoral or illegal order. On the other hand, there is an incentive to cooperate.

In his report, the city controller charges the airport general manager with "dereliction of [his] fiduciary responsibilities" and with not meeting "the standards expected of executive-level city employees." These are serious charges for men like Driscoll and Lee, who have spent decades in government service, compared with Stein, who, after serving Riordan, ran for city attorney and lost.

Putting aside that the Hubbell affair did not personally benefit anyone who worked in city government and that he was hired to further a city policy of diverting airport funds to the general fund, the lesson is not that the end justifies the means. Rather, it is that rules exist for a reason. If the rules are wrong, they should be challenged, not ignored. A functioning democracy promotes fairness through rules. To push rules aside--whether in contracting, street signs or anything else--is to live under tyranny, however benevolent.

Tuttle recommends that the chief legislative analyst, the city attorney, the City Ethics Commission and the city controller develop a curriculum to train commissioners and executives on how to carry out their respective roles, responsibilities and authority, including a reminder to city employees that they have both the right and the responsibility to refuse to carry out the wishes of commissioners or general managers when they exceed their authority. He also proposes that a "safe place" be established, perhaps in the City Ethics Commission, where employees can report violations without fear of retribution.

These are appropriate and temperate suggestions that the mayor and others should endorse and enact. Riordan also has to recognize that his approach to government--fixing things by breaking the rules--can be extraordinarily costly to a system designed to be fair to everyone. Until then, the Civil Service's reputation remains vulnerable.

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