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Weiss' style an issue in race for city attorney

The two-term city councilman, now seeking a new office, has drawn admiration and animosity in his district.

February 28, 2009|Maeve Reston

When four of the candidates running for Los Angeles city attorney recently debated on the home turf of their chief opponent, City Councilman Jack Weiss, there was no question about whom they were targeting -- or the level of animosity that simmers among some of Weiss' Westside constituents.

The forum's organizers, most of whom supported the unsuccessful recall of Weiss two years ago, had invited representatives from several dozen homeowners' groups and theatrically left an empty chair for their two-term councilman, who was attending a family event.

Complaints about Weiss' accessibility, his close alliance with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his openness to development began rolling in during the first round of questions. It was not long before one opponent, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Berger, took out a photograph of Weiss and jokingly invited the audience to throw darts.

The tone of that forum in Holmby Hills has pervaded the city attorney's race this year, even as Weiss has raised a lot more money than his opponents while raking in endorsements from a diverse spectrum that includes Police Chief William J. Bratton, labor unions, gun-control advocates and women's organizations.

Weiss and his supporters characterize his critics as a small, vocal group angered by his tendency to prioritize the city's broader interests over his district's.

But the controversy over his style -- including his prickly relationships in council chambers -- has taken aback even some of the candidates vying to replace him in the 5th District City Council race.

When she began knocking on doors, candidate Robyn Ritter Simon said she found "deep" resentment: "The first thing out of their mouths was, 'If you're running against Jack, I'll support you,' " she said.

Many of Weiss' colleagues and his former bosses, however, are quick to praise his intellect and legal skills. The city attorney's office, some of them say, may simply be a better fit for the former federal prosecutor, who is impatient with the slow pace at City Hall and eager to return to the courtroom.

Councilman Greig Smith said Weiss would be the first to admit that he's been "difficult to work with at times -- that's an understatement." Said Councilwoman Jan Perry: "I don't deal with him. It's easier not to."

Some council members privately grouse about Weiss' dismissive manner, his frequent absences from the council floor and his tendency to disappear when council members are honoring residents who have recently died.

A few are frustrated by what they view as Weiss' unwillingness to buck the mayor.

But Smith said council members have relied on Weiss' legal reasoning.

"He may not be warm and fuzzy, but you know the integrity is there," said Smith, who has endorsed Weiss along with seven others on the 15-member council. "Difficult guy to deal with, but he'll be a great city attorney."

In his campaign for the citywide office that will be vacated this year by Rocky Delgadillo, the UCLA Law School graduate is touting his six years as a prosecutor in the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office.

Richard E. Drooyan, then chief of the Criminal Division, said Weiss was among a group of "really top-flight prosecutors" and that he developed quickly into a hardworking and aggressive attorney.

Over that time, Weiss took eight cases to trial. He won convictions of a Thai restaurateur accused of keeping employees in involuntary servitude, and of an original member of the Mickey Mouse Club who went to prison for securities fraud and obstruction of justice and perjury before the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Though Weiss was assigned to white-collar crime, another former criminal division chief, David C. Scheper, said he had a "nose for getting into the muck and mire and grime of street crime."

While investigating an armed robbery of the Postal Service credit union in Los Angeles, Scheper said, Weiss "got the gangbangers to join his team," securing the conviction of an Immigration and Naturalization Service officer who plotted the crime.

Jeff Eglash, former chief of the U.S. attorney's public corruption unit, remembered Weiss as careful and methodical. "He never rushed to judgment -- he didn't indict before a case was fully developed." One case that drew Eglash's notice was Weiss' investigation of a Superior Court judge who admitted in 2001 to giving special treatment to a defendant who said the judge coerced her into a sexual relationship.

Several of Weiss' opponents have questioned why he did not handle more trials. Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich, a former district attorney who prosecuted hard-core gang members and later defended environmental crimes as a private attorney, said Weiss' experience "pales in comparison to mine."

Eglash, however, said that federal cases are most often settled and that Weiss tackled "complex and important cases" that took time.

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