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TIM RUTTEN

Is the FBI investigating Delgadillo?

August 20, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

At this point in his amazing shrinking career, you probably could fill most of Staples Center with local politicians who've got it in for Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. Now the question is: Do we need a row of seats for the FBI?

Over the last couple of months, reporters and others who write about local politics and government have received a variety of tips that the feds are investigating Delgadillo, though it's never clear exactly why. Many of them come from the city attorney's political opponents; most involve secondhand information.

You may recall that a year ago, The Times published a series of stories on Delgadillo's misuse of a city-owned SUV, his penchant for sending public employees on personal errands -- picking up dry cleaning, baby-sitting the kids -- and his wife's outstanding traffic tickets. Chez Delgadillo turned out to be a remarkably disordered place in which vehicles were driven without insurance or valid driver's licenses and the wife operated a business without bothering to obtain a city license or pay those annoying business taxes.

According to the tips, the FBI saw something in that embarrassing mess that might involve a violation of federal law and now is investigating. The problem for reporters and editors has been a simple one: The FBI and other investigative agencies look into allegations against public officials all the time. Sometimes their inquiries are serious criminal probes; sometimes they occur because somebody sends investigators a loose-leaf notebook filled with clippings and suggests that "somebody ought to look into this."

You get the point.

It's an old game, which is why The Times goes to considerable lengths to check out tips like this and declines to publish anything until it can be established that an actual investigation is in progress. That process has been vigorously pursued.

Somebody, however, is very eager to see the "Rocky Investigated" story in print no matter what, and late Monday, they succeeded in getting it into the San Francisco Chronicle, which reported that FBI agents headquartered there "have begun a criminal investigation" of Delgadillo. The report -- based on "sources familiar with the FBI investigation" -- was not specific on what was being investigated but alleged that "the probe began after Delgadillo was criticized for allegedly using city resources for personal benefit." Agents from San Francisco reportedly are involved because L.A. agents routinely work with the city attorney and, therefore, have a conflict of interest.

What the Chronicle's sources understood is that, in this new digital age, publication anywhere is publication everywhere. Within hours, the San Francisco story was picked up on a variety of local Internet blogs, including latimes.com's LA Now. That posting subsequently was amended thus: "The FBI has begun a criminal probe of our city attorney, Rocky Delgadillo, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. (UPDATE: Given what we've reported about Delgadillo's use of city funds to repair a wrecked car and city staff to watch his kids, it's not surprising that the feds might be looking into his actions. They have a legal obligation to chase leads. But it's also worth noting that lots of investigations end up determining nothing illegal happened.)"

The caveat is an important recognition that the transition to online news delivery -- with its aggregation of almost anything that appears almost anywhere -- cannot become a de facto technological outsourcing of a paper's news judgment. That judgment, fallible as it may be, is, after all, the minute-by-minute expression of a news organization's basic integrity. You do not barter that for a zippy mess of cyber pottage. In this new world, you have to acknowledge what others publish but not endorse it.

By Tuesday afternoon, the situation surrounding Delgadillo was as confused as before. Both he and his spokesman continued to deny any knowledge of an FBI probe, though City Controller Laura Chick was willing to say she had been interviewed about Delgadillo by federal investigators but declined to discuss the interview. The feds, meanwhile, continue their customary practice of refusing to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

But just as The Times has had to find a way to maintain its rules on a new playing field, it's time for the FBI to do the same. Its refusal to confirm or deny in this case, which might once upon a time have stopped a story, is pointless.

The FBI needs to make a simple declaration of whether or not it's investigating Delgadillo. He is, after all, a public prosecutor. His office may be hubris central in a building where egos routinely come supersized, but it's intolerable to expect it to perform under this kind of cloud. The FBI has a responsibility not only to public integrity but to orderly public government, and as things stand now, it ought to fulfill it with a simple act of candor.

--

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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