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L.A. has more serious things to worry about than Billy and the cardinal

The City Council should spend its time and money more wisely, and so should the U.S. attorney.

January 31, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

What do Billy the elephant and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony have in common? Both are the subject of frivolous, pointlessly distracting governmental deliberations at a time of actual civic crisis.

Billy, of course, is the city zoo's single remaining pachyderm. For three months, the L.A. City Council has been sporadically consumed by hearings, motions, debates and votes about whether to contribute its $14.5-million share of the $42-million cost of the new elephant enclosure at the L.A. Zoo. The idea is that a bigger, more natural environment will make the wretched Billy happier and healthier and allow the reintroduction of other elephants, which are -- in nature -- social creatures.

Seems simple enough, but for months, the smoking ruin that masquerades as the legislative branch of city government has worried endlessly over whether there should be any elephants in zoos, whether Billy's head bobbing is a sign of psychological distress or whether the new enclosure will allow the exercise elephants need to maintain healthy feet.

Now, everybody likes elephants and most people like zoos -- but, please! We're all being asked to make do with less these days, so maybe Billy could find a way to get by with something slightly less expansive than a savanna. This city is slipping into economic crisis. We have people in L.A. sleeping in their cars and on the streets. Many don't have access to the most basic healthcare, and the City Council is preoccupied with an elephant's cranial tics.

How do these people cash their checks without feeling like frauds?

Meanwhile, as the council distracts itself with zoological irrelevancies, U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien has convened a grand jury to investigate the Los Angeles Archdiocese's handling of priests who abused children. Now, O'Brien isn't seeking to have the panel hand up indictments for sexual abuse; every cleric who can be criminally prosecuted already has been by the county's district attorney. Nor is O'Brien seeking compensation for the victims; two years ago, the archdiocese paid $660 million to 508 people who said they'd been abused by clerics or other church employees. Nor does O'Brien allege that the archdiocesan authorities currently are negligent in their approach to the welfare of children in their charge; in fact, Mahony has imposed a zero-tolerance policy on abuse so stringent that it's regarded as a model for institutions that care for the young.

So precisely what sort of investigation is O'Brien leading this grand jury through? (And make no mistake, federal grand juries indeed are "led" by the prosecutors who choose the witnesses and evidence put before them.) According to The Times' Scott Glover and Jack Leonard, he is trying to determine whether, by moving abusive priests from one assignment to another, archdiocesan officials -- presumably including the cardinal, although his lawyer says he's been told the prelate is not a "target" -- violated an obscure federal fraud statute that forbids using the mails or electronic communication to "scheme ... to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services." Congress wrote that provision to get at corrupt elected officials, though federal prosecutors since have extended it to corporate criminals like former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling.

The cardinal has pronounced himself "mystified and puzzled by the whole thing." Now, it takes a lot to mystify a guy formally trained in scholastic philosophy and canon law, not to mention doctrines like the trinity and transubstantiation. He's hardly alone, however. Legal scholars have called O'Brien's attempt to apply the honest services provision to this set of facts "novel" and "creative." That's legalese for a shot in the dark.

What's really going on here?

So far, the grand jury has subpoenaed records on 22 former priests, two of whom are dead, according to sources at the U.S. attorney's office. All of the relevant information on their cases has been in the hands of county prosecutors for years. The legal acrimony between the D.A.'s office and the archdiocese over all this has been corrosive enough to eat through titanium alloy. If any sort of criminal obstruction had occurred, does anybody really think L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley wouldn't have prosecuted? And if the evidence is there and he didn't, why isn't he being investigated for failing to provide "honest services"?

Moreover, what exactly constitutes "honest services" on the part of a cardinal? Does O'Brien really believe that his office is competent to determine that? If so, we've got not only a novel legal theory on our hands but also a novel notion of separation of church and state. What we've really got is one of the most dangerous things our system throws up -- an overreaching prosecutor.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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