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Shaken by PR Firm's Bill for Martini

April 08, 2006|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

One martini was all it took.

Slipped into a $300,000 bill from a public relations firm with close ties to Mayor James K. Hahn, the cocktail, imbibed by Hahn deputy Troy Edwards, didn't pass Department of Water and Power employee Randy S. Howard's smell test, he testified Friday.

He refused to approve paying for the drink, and was moved out of his job as DWP director of corporate communications.

"I had declined to approve some of the billings," Howard told jurors Friday in a federal trial charging two former public relations executives with padding client bills. "Subsequent to that, I was reassigned."

Douglas Dowie, the former head of Fleishman-Hillard's Los Angeles office, and his deputy, John Stoddard Jr., are accused of billing DWP more than $300,000 for hours they didn't work. They have pleaded not guilty.

Howard's testimony, coming in the third day of trial, shifted the focus from the fraudulent-billing accusations to the former mayor's relationship with the international public relations firm. Hahn is expected to testify in the trial.

The case is the first criminal prosecution to come out of an ongoing state and federal "pay to play" investigation into accusations that politicians traded city contracts for campaign contributions.

Although pay to play is not part of the government's case against the two public relations executives, Dowie has accused Fleishman-Hillard in a separate civil suit of wrongfully firing him in January 2005 to cover up the firm's laundering of campaign contributions to Los Angeles politicians.

A lawyer for the firm has denied the allegations.

Defense lawyers Thomas Holliday and Jan Handzlik grilled Howard for more than three hours Friday, suggesting that some of the questioned bills were for legitimate projects that Hahn's office was conducting in conjunction with the DWP.

Howard conceded the extra hours "may have been related to actions of the mayor's office" but said he could never confirm that.

"I was not aware of any direct activities that Fleishman-Hillard was doing for the mayor's office" that were billed to the DWP, Howard testified.

Howard also told jurors he refused to pay for dinner and parking for public relations executives and Richard Katz, a former Democratic assemblyman, at a Simi Valley restaurant. Katz led the unsuccessful San Fernando Valley secession movement; Hahn headed the opposition.

Howard said a supervisor told him his transfer was ordered in part because he "pushed too hard on the mayor's office." The supervisor approved the questioned bills over his objections, Howard testified.

Of the bills he did approve, Howard said he believed the firm's monthly activity reports were truthful.

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