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Rating the scandals

July 17, 2008|PATT MORRISON

And now -- a political scandal everybody can get a handle on.

None of your forgettable L.A. campaign ethics violations, like last week's. One city councilman was fined $2,650 for naughty stuff like not turning in the script for his robo-calls. Another owes $3,000 for pocketing six campaign contributions that were more than $500. Bad councilmen -- bad!

No, sirree. I mean a political scandal as juicy as a California Redwing peach. An ex-L.A. city commissioner is on trial for assorted felonies in what they call a pay-to-play deal. What kind of play? Leland Wong was allegedly slipping Lakers tickets to a former deputy mayor and treating him to happy-finish massages in order to land a city contract for a shipping company the then-commissioner was working for on the side.

Sexy shiatsu! Kobe Bryant! That, people get. All misconduct matters, but it doesn't always register with the voters whose interests are getting trashed. If it doesn't have drugs or sex or rock 'n' roll (or lots of cash), it doesn't seem to click.

Test it yourself.

* Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower's chief of staff. (An oldie but goodie.) All I remember was that he took a bribe of a vicuna coat. But why? I had to look it up: It was a gift from a textile manufacturer being investigated by the feds.

* Jack Abramoff, lobbyist. Rings a bell, yes? Dark fedora, went to prison? He ripped off some Indians and took political bigwigs golfing in Scotland? Is it coming back to you now?

What made Abramoff a danger to democracy is the stuff that nobody but prosecutors and grand juries and investigative reporters and political junkies pay much attention to: subverting the system. Lobbying to keep the "Made in the USA" label on clothes from the Northern Mariana Islands while at the same time keeping the USA's labor regulations out of the island's factories. Funneling millions from a Russian energy company to win votes on legislation to bail out the Russian economy.

Abramoff essentially bought and sold democracy and went to prison for it, but because he wasn't caught, oh, peeing on the crab apple trees in the White House Rose Garden, his name soon fell off the public's mental map.

Here's a perfect L.A. example. In 1993, when DWP workers went on strike, nearly 300 managers stepped in for nine days and gorged themselves on $800,000 worth of catered food. That was a huge scandal -- made all the tastier for the fact that some of the managers got food poisoning -- but nobody paid much attention to the agency's far more disturbing videotaping of the strikers' picket lines, which taxpayers also paid for.

Why do our minds discard a lot of the significant and relish the seamy? I called Ruth S. Jones of Arizona State University, who teaches a class -- and is writing the book -- on political scandals. She picked up on the Lakers tickets theme: "Everybody would like to have Lakers tickets. Everybody understands that. People say 'I understand what Laker tickets are. I don't understand electronic transactions to the Cayman Islands.' "

Scandals have to engage people's interest day after day to register, and very often, says Jones, the standard response to some scandal may be "Oh, that's politics" -- meaning a practice that people shrug off as standard back-scratching.

How, then, to make sure the big, complicated, democracy-killing scandals get the same attention as the lurid but maybe lesser ones?

Here's what I propose:

Let's create a Scandalosity Rating System, with units everyone understands. Let's call our metrics "Dukes," "Caronas" and "Lelands." "Dukes" for onetime California Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who picked out antiques and let a defense lobbyist pay the bill; "Caronas" for former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, who allegedly received an avalanche of gifts, like World Series luxury box seats and a $5,000 (used) Sea Ray boat, from admirers and supporters.

Under the Scandalosity Rating System, then, how serious were those recent fines for violating city ethics rules? Between them, council members Richard Alarcon and Herb Wesson had to pay $5,650. One of Cunningham's antiques, a French commode, cost $7,200 -- one "Duke." So the combined ethics fine would rate 3/4 of a Duke, a little more than one full "Carona," or 36 "Lelands," based on a $132 massage.

Getting the hang of it? Try this: A couple of years ago a former Lynwood mayor, Paul H. Richards II, was sent to prison for a fraud scheme to steer city contracts to a corporation he secretly owned.

Complicated and boring, right? Not on the SRS scale! The half-million bucks he pocketed before he got caught works out to about 62 "Dukes," or about 3,700 "Lelands."

And that doesn't include the tip.


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