I was strolling toward the entrance of the Homegirl Cafe when Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, a San Pedro boy, lumbered toward me like a longshoreman, his fist clenched.
"Should I punch you now?" he asked.
"What'd I do?" I asked.
"Nothing. But I'm a bully, right?"
According to a headline in my newspaper and a growing number of people, yeah, he is. Feathers have been ruffled. Egos bruised. Some of Trutanich's fellow public officials say the city attorney has threatened to file charges against them or lock them up if they don't follow his strict interpretation of the law.
Last week, an executive with Staples Center accused Trutanich of using intimidation to try to extract $6 million from the entertainment company to cover city expenses on Michael Jackson's memorial service.
"He's trying to bully us, and he's done it on three different occasions," Tim Leiweke told The Times. Leiweke is the big gun locally for AEG, which owns Staples Center and L.A. Live.
All I can say is that Leiweke should know a bully when he sees one. AEG has bullied its way into one sweetheart deal after another, from tax advantages to regulatory exceptions for environmental impact reports and advertising.
Not that it takes a tough guy to topple a Los Angeles public official. Money works better than bullying, anyway, and AEG drops it at City Hall like confetti.
Trutanich's critics are many, though. City Councilwoman Jan Perry also got in Trutanich's way, and she insists he threatened to lock her up over her defense of AEG's right to put up a large outdoor ad. Perry says the deal was approved before a city ban and should be allowed, and she was shocked by the city attorney's threat of jail if she didn't see it his way.
On Friday, the City Council smacked Trutanich around, unanimously rejecting his advice and siding with AEG.
All right, let me be honest: I'm feeling somewhat responsible for Trutanich. I didn't exactly choose sides when he ran against Jack Weiss earlier this year. But I made it clear that I liked Trutanich's tough talk about changing the City Hall culture and that I considered Weiss a tone-deaf Antonio Villaraigosa lackey who had alienated many of his own constituents as a city councilman.
So if "Nuch," as he's called, turns out to be a knuckle-dragging lunker -- or if, God forbid, he makes us long for the return of Rocky Delgadillo and his uninsured demolition derby wife -- I think it's only fair that I come clean and hammer him for his misdeeds.
I don't have a problem with a city attorney who throws punches. It's about time, in fact. But getting things done requires a certain amount of sophistication and nuance. Nobody wants a public servant behaving like a thug or a palooka.
So I set up last week's little chat to take Trutanich's temperature. Unfortunately, Homegirls was closing for the day, so Nuch suggested we go to 2nd Street Cigar.
Sure, I told him. Last time I had a cigar with a public official, it was Gov. Schwarzenegger.
Trutanich travels in a police-issue Chevy Tahoe with an armed security guard, sometimes two. At the cigar shop, he picked the stogies, which were big enough to carry astronauts. We retreated to the semi-private back of the store with his special assistant, David Berger, a Brit who sounds like Alistair Cooke. Berger ran for city attorney himself, then signed on with Trutanich when he lost.
"He's a letterman," Trutanich said.
"Not David," Berger said.
The TV was on, with a semi-nude woman dancing, money taped over her privates. I thought at first it was a show about a Sacramento lobbyist, but it turned out to be "Real Housewives of Atlanta," and Trutanich, to his credit, couldn't have been less interested. He wanted to talk about the way he does business.
"The laws apply to everyone," he said, arguing that in the case of the advertising rights AEG was fighting for, he wouldn't give an inch.
I checked with Dennis Hathaway of Ban Billboard Blight on that subject, and he said it's a terribly complicated matter and it's not clear to him whether Trutanich was right on the law. What is clear, Hathaway said, is that the city has rolled over for AEG and other big players far too often, offering exceptions that make it difficult to enforce existing codes across the city.
"It's out of control," Trutanich said between puffs, and as I see it, he's smart to establish that his office will fight for strict interpretation of regulations every time out.
As for Leiweke's complaint to The Times that Trutanich demanded $6 million in reimbursement costs for Jackson's memorial, the city attorney said that's not true, and the figure he wants is closer to $2 million or $3 million.
So Leiweke is lying?
"I think he's mistaken."