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It's a great summer for ethics watchdogs and columnists

What with the recent scandals in Bell, Sacramento and Washington, there's plenty to keep our rage burning.

August 04, 2010|Steve Lopez

Sure, the weather has been a bit on the cool side, but I can't remember a more enjoyable summer than the one we're having this year.

Everywhere you look, public officials are setting the table for a lovely feast, prompting criminal and ethical investigations from Bell to Sacramento to Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Toyota keeps making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and if the good folks at BP thought radioactive waste were an effective oil dispersant, the entire gulf would be aglow.

"The line between the dark side and the force appears to be getting grayer," said Michael Josephson, the L.A.-based ethicist who comments nationally on character and integrity.

Maybe the skullduggery isn't necessarily getting more plentiful, he added.

"But it seems like it's more unrepentant in some way."

I believe he just spelled B-E-L-L.

That's the home of everyone's favorite pension fund-busting city officials, including the chief executive who says sure, his $800,000 salary was large, but he's worth it.

In the latest installment of that crowd-pleasing soap opera, the wizards at City Hall are still denying media access to public records.

Having examined documents involving the city's $4.6-million purchase of an abandoned Western Auto from the family trust of an ex-con and ex-councilman — who, by the way, once served as executor for the estate of mobster Mickey Cohen — I can see why they're not eager to open the books.

Even though Bell keeps hogging up all our ink, other contenders are vying for a piece of your rage. On Tuesday, The Times offered up an L.A. County Probation Department executive who's resigning from that scandal-rocked outfit in the midst of an investigation into omissions on his financial disclosure form and possible conflicts of interest.

And we also reported how three state legislators scored Laker playoff tickets from a real estate company after the Legislature voted to waive environmental rules for a football stadium the real estate company had proposed. Good going, Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), and Assemblymen Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) and Charles Calderon (D-Montebello). I wonder if they sat near L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa?

If stories like those only make you hungry for more, do not fret. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, the Los Angeles Democrat, must have been jealous that Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) was stealing so many headlines, so now she's got her own ethics trial coming up.

Interested in some light summer reading? Go to the website for the Office of Congressional Ethics ( and print out the 107-page report in which the OCE board found "substantial reason" to believe Waters committed ethical violations.

The matter involves a meeting Waters set up in 2008 between representatives of minority-owned banks and then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson. The banks were looking to score some federal bailout money, and in a crunch, who you gonna call?

They asked Waters to hook them up with Paulson. And although Paulson had a few other things on his mind, including the financial collapse of the world, Waters rang Paulson and got a meeting for the bankers.

"You don't use your chits for nothing, you call when there's an important issue," Waters says in one of my favorite passages in the report. She told Paulson she had "some people in town who were important to her," and she was concerned that Treasury's handling of troubled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could "severely disadvantage minority-owned banks."

The association representing minority banks has 103 members, but only one bank was directly represented at the meeting with Paulson. Are you ready for this? It was the bank on which Waters' husband, Sidney Williams, had been a board member, and held investments valued between $500,000 and $1 million.

Paulson told investigators that Waters didn't mention her husband's ties to the bank, which, by the way, later received $12 million in bailout funds.

Sometimes you roll sevens.

"I have not violated any House rules," Waters said Monday in her statement, arguing that she did not attend the meeting in question and gained nothing from it. "Therefore, I simply will not be forced to admit to something I did not do and instead have chosen to respond to charges…in a public hearing."

I called Washington to see if I might charm Waters into answering a few questions, but I struck out, and I really don't have much charm, anyway. If I did, I wouldn't be asking indelicate questions, such as this one:

If Waters doesn't think she did anything wrong, why did she tell a congressional colleague she was in a "predicament" because of her husband's ties to the bank, according to investigators? Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), told The Times last year that in a conversation with Waters, "She acknowledged that 'Sidney had been on the board. I could have a conflict here.' I said, 'Fine, just stay out of it.'"

Good advice.

Waters insists that investigators have twisted the facts "to fit faulty conclusions," and who knows, maybe she'll turn out to be right.

But Josephson, the ethicist, looks at Bell, Hollywood, Wall Street and D.C., and sees a growing number of "people whose conscience is over-ridden by a sense of entitlement."

Bless them all, I say. They're keeping Josephson, and me, in business.

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