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Lockyer Admits to Lunch With Getty's Ex-Chief

The attorney general says the meeting, held while his office was investigating Barry Munitz, had nothing to do with the case.

July 27, 2006|Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch | Times Staff Writers

While he was under investigation by the state attorney general's office for financial improprieties, former J. Paul Getty Trust Chief Executive Barry Munitz turned to a close friend for consolation -- Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

California's top law enforcement official acknowledged this week that he and Munitz had met in mid-January for lunch, during which the embattled Getty administrator confided that he intended to quit his $1.5-million-a-year job because of a growing controversy over his use of the nonprofit's resources for personal benefit.

Faced with mounting evidence against him, Munitz resigned a month later, agreeing to forgo more than $2 million promised in his contract and reimburse the Getty $250,000 to resolve "continuing disputes."

Lockyer's disclosure, made in response to questions from The Times, comes as his charitable trust division is about to release a report on its yearlong investigation of the $5.5-billion arts nonprofit.

The attorney general's office regulates all nonprofits doing business in California and can impose civil penalties, remove trustees or recommend the revocation of an organization's tax-exempt status if it discovers gross mismanagement or fraud.

Lockyer, who is running for state treasurer in November, said that the Jan. 13 meeting with Munitz at Rocket Pizza, a downtown Los Angeles restaurant, might look inappropriate. But there was no talk about the probe during the lunch, which was arranged on short notice at the Getty chief's request, he said. Lockyer added that the get-together did not violate his unwritten policy of not meeting alone with targets of an investigation because the probe was not discussed.

"This was, in my mind, lunch with a personal friend that I've known for a long time and it didn't have anything to do with the case," he said. "I can understand how someone could say the appearance was bad. But, hey, he's my friend.

"I was being a good listener, kind of consoling him as he leaves a job that he loves," said Lockyer, characterizing the discussion, which eventually shifted to books and movies, as "therapy with a friend."

Munitz did not respond to an e-mail requesting an interview.

Experts in government ethics said that though Lockyer broke no laws in meeting with Munitz, it was "not wise" and a "mistake" for him to meet alone with the target of an investigation, no matter how casual or innocent the occasion.

"If the report comes out and the A.G.'s office says there are no problems at the Getty, the question will be: What part did Lockyer have in it?" said Robert Stern, director of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "You'll always have a perception problem."

Robert Fellmeth, director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, said that Lockyer showed "bad judgment" by meeting with Munitz because the morale of his deputies and investigators working on the case could be affected.

"They can say, 'Wait a minute. The boss is meeting with this person. What do I do now?' " Fellmeth said.

Lockyer's office launched an investigation of Munitz last summer, after The Times reported that the Getty executive had made grants to friends, demanded a raise amid cost-cutting, traveled lavishly at the nonprofit's expense and used staff to perform personal errands.

Belinda Johns, the senior assistant attorney general in charge of the charitable trust division, and James Cordi, a 33-year veteran who oversaw the Getty probe, said they didn't know about the lunch but were unconcerned when they were told about it Monday.

"He has never interfered with one of our investigations, and that's really the bottom line," Johns said. "In the last 7 1/2 years, Lockyer has never not agreed with something we wanted to do ... so I don't think that lunch is going to have any effect on the outcome of the investigation."

In the meantime, records and interviews show that Munitz wasn't the only Getty representative Lockyer had contact with during his office's probe.

The attorney general said he had two private telephone discussions with attorney Ronald Olson, whose firm was hired by the Getty board, Munitz's bosses, to conduct an internal review and represent the nonprofit's interest during the attorney general probe.

Lockyer said Olson called him last fall to announce that Munger, Tolles & Olson had been hired and "would be happy" to pass along any documents the attorney general's investigators needed.

The second call came Feb. 10, when Olson told the attorney general that Munitz had resigned. Both exchanges were "courtesy calls," lasting only a few minutes, Lockyer said.

A more detailed, face-to-face meeting of Olson, Lockyer and their respective associates was arranged for Feb. 14, but the attorney general said he became ill and did not attend, although his staff was present.

Olson confirmed that he had asked for the meeting with Lockyer as an "opportunity to ... explain our findings" from the internal probe.

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