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Delgadillo trips up on fast track

The L.A. city attorney's career had seemed charmed until a string of revelations and reversals. The ultimate fallout is unknown.

June 24, 2007|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

Almost from the start, Rocky Delgadillo's trajectory through life has resembled that of something fired from a cannon.

He went from being a star athlete and student body president at Franklin High School in Highland Park to Harvard.

Then came law school at Columbia, followed by a stint at a prestigious L.A. law firm where the firm's chairman, Warren Christopher, became his mentor. With Christopher's help, Delgadillo made the transition into politics and, in 2001, won the race for Los Angeles city attorney, becoming the first Latino elected to citywide office in more than three decades.

Even his failed campaign for California attorney general last year had some pundits saying it had increased his statewide name recognition and better positioned him for pursuit of higher office in the future.

Nothing, it seemed, could slow Delgadillo down.

Until now.

Over the last several days, the city's top prosecutor has been forced to make a series of embarrassing admissions about his own conduct and that of his wife, Michelle.

After dodging questions for days, Delgadillo acknowledged that she was driving his city-owned GMC Yukon with a suspended license when it was damaged in an accident and later repaired at city expense in 2004. He has since apologized and, after the incident surfaced publicly, repaid the $1,222 bill.

Delgadillo also acknowledged -- after first denying it -- that he himself had driven the couple's personal sport utility vehicle without insurance for more than a year.

On Wednesday, in response to questions from The Times, he confirmed that he had enlisted members of his staff to run personal errands and baby-sit his children. The city Ethics Commission and the State Bar of California have begun inquiries related to Delgadillo's alleged use of city resources for personal purposes.

The disclosures came on the heels of his being fined $11,450 for 30 counts of violating campaign finance laws, and an accusation by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley that Delgadillo had been filing misdemeanor charges against defendants who could have been charged as felons, to keep the cases in the city attorney's jurisdiction.

What the fallout -- politically or otherwise -- ultimately will be remains to be seen. There has been widespread speculation that Delgadillo, who will be forced by term limits from the city attorney post in 2009, is considering a run for Los Angeles County district attorney next year.

Delgadillo and his wife declined to be interviewed for this article.

Even some of his once-ardent backers did not exactly leap to his defense in the wake of the controversies.

"I remain Rocky's friend," Christopher, the former U.S. secretary of State and Delgadillo's mentor at the O'Melveny and Myers law firm, said in a prepared statement. "But since I have not been involved, I do not want to further complicate the situation by offering a comment."

Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who tapped Delgadillo to be his deputy mayor for economic development in the mid-1990s, said he remained confident in his former aide's ability to serve as city attorney. But he added, "Rocky gets an F-minus in damage control. Before you open your mouth, you've got to get all the facts."

Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor who specializes in Los Angeles politics, said it was "the cumulative effect" of Delgadillo's transgressions that poses the biggest problem.

"It makes you really question what was the city attorney thinking," Sonenshein said. "Politically, I think there's going to be some significant damage from this."

Delgadillo, 46, was born July 15, 1960, the fourth of five children. He excelled in sports, and lettered in baseball, football, basketball and track at Franklin High. He also earned high marks and was elected class president as well as student body president.

At Harvard, he played football and later tried out for the NFL's New York Giants, but didn't make the team. (He subsequently claimed in campaign speeches and promotional materials that he went to Harvard on a football scholarship, was selected as an All American and played pro football. But those claims have since been modified or retracted.)

After graduating from Harvard, he returned to Los Angeles, where he briefly worked as a teacher and coach at his alma mater before being accepted to law school at Columbia University in New York. From there he again came back to Los Angeles to work as an attorney.

After the city's riots in 1992, Delgadillo went to work for Rebuild L.A., a corporate-led nonprofit organization created to revitalize South Los Angeles and other neighborhoods damaged in the rioting. That burst of violence followed the first trial of the police officers involved in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.

From there, Delgadillo went to work for Riordan.

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