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The polarizer

Amid a city suit over his PR firm's billing practices, the well-connected Doug Dowie inspires intense feelings.

September 22, 2004|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Doug DOWIE is doing 90 on I-5, listening to an Allman Brothers CD in his black 2004 Jaguar. It's a weekday morning and one of his friends suggested that he make this trip, Los Angeles to San Francisco, for an overnight stay.

He's been restless for weeks, stuck in limbo since his employer -- public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard -- sent him home on indefinite paid leave amid allegations that his company's Los Angeles office, which Dowie headed, was involved in a billing scandal that has rocked Los Angeles City Hall.

Dowie figured the trip would be therapeutic. As it turns out, it isn't. The expanse of road gives him lots of time to stew. On his cellphone he complains -- bitterly -- about the people who claim that he was demeaning and overly demanding as he rose through the ranks as an editor at the Los Angeles Daily News and then as a top executive at Fleishman-Hillard, where he became a political powerbroker.

With a Marine tattoo on his right arm and a loud, booming voice, Dowie is a legend in some circles. One of the last of the old-school newsmen before he took up politics and public relations, the silver-haired Vietnam vet is notorious for a gruff, sarcastic demeanor that some say is too harsh. Yet he can also be surprisingly charming and funny when he wants to be -- traits that have endeared him to some of the city's most powerful people over the years. At 56, he is well known among local news reporters who watched as he transformed himself from an aggressive journalist into a high-paid media advisor and confidant of political leaders.

Both Dowie's critics and friends believe his strong, sometimes bombastic personality helped bring on his woes. Dowie, who was recently named in a civil lawsuit that accuses Fleishman of overbilling the city in its multimillion-dollar PR contracts, calls his image "just myth."

"The problem with being the tough guy and the life of the party is when the music stops, you're the one left standing," says Los Angeles Business Journal editor Mark Lacter, who worked with Dowie at the Daily News.

This is what Dowie's firm is facing: Seven former Fleishman employees allege they were encouraged -- and sometimes told -- to submit fake bills to the Department of Water and Power, which was paying the PR firm $3 million a year for advice on how to improve its public image, according to an investigative story printed July 15 in the Los Angeles Times. Two former Fleishman staffers told The Times that Dowie was either aware of or encouraged the billings. (Dowie denies the allegations, which remain under investigation.)

Last week, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo expanded a civil lawsuit against Fleishman to specifically list Dowie as a defendant. In the suit, Delgadillo alleges that the firm and Dowie systematically defrauded the DWP, as well as the airport department and the harbor department by padding monthly bills. The U.S. attorney's office and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office are each looking into the matter. Executives at Fleishman's headquarters in St. Louis are cooperating with local and federal officials. They say they do not condone unethical or improper billing practices and are asking people with information to come forward.

Dowie was placed on administrative leave after The Times' article appeared in the paper. He retained a libel attorney who sent a letter demanding a retraction. According to the letter, Dowie claims that the allegations that he told Fleishman employees to inflate their hours on the DWP account is "absolutely ludicrous." The Times declined Dowie's request.

Fleishman-Hillard executives have forbidden Dowie from publicly discussing the controversy, and he will not comment on the charges for the record. Nevertheless, Dowie has told close associates and friends that he did not do anything illegal or unethical.

A news junkie with a love of politics, Dowie has been a master at developing Los Angeles contacts, culled over three decades of jobs in journalism, politics and public relations. What Kevin Bacon is to Hollywood, Doug Dowie is to L.A. civic life -- there seems to be only 6 degrees of separation between him and much of the downtown power structure.

* He befriended Laura Chick years ago and encouraged her to run for public office. Chick, the city controller, is currently investigating whether Dowie's PR firm submitted inflated bills to city departments.

* Dowie hired journalists away from The Times and the Daily News to work for him at Fleishman-Hillard. He believes people with connections to The Times are among the sources who told the paper in a recent article that the firm routinely overbilled the city.

* He forged strong relationships with Mayor James K. Hahn's office. Last year, Hahn's press secretary, Matt Middlebrook, left to work in Fleishman's San Francisco office. Shannon Murphy, one of Dowie's proteges at Fleishman-Hillard, then started working for Hahn.

The list goes on and on.

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