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Vernon ethics advisor says he was misled about ad

Former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van De Kamp said he thought he was being interviewed for a newspaper article, not a promotional campaign for the scandal-plagued city.

April 02, 2011|By Hector Becerra and Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp says he thought he was being interviewed for a news story about Vernon.
Former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp says he thought he was being interviewed… (Los Angeles Times )

A prominent attorney who was hired by Vernon to do an independent audit of its scandal-tainted City Hall criticized city officials for misleading him into cooperating with a promotional ad he thought was a newspaper story.

The ads, which appeared in several newspapers this week, show two photos of former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and include an interview in which he discusses the report he was commissioned to write about the industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles.

Van de Kamp said the city arranged for him to be interviewed by a reporter. But officials did not tell him it was for a large, full-color advertisement touting the virtues of the embattled city. He said he didn't know about the ad until he saw it in Pasadena Star-News on Thursday morning.

"I'm not here to…flak for the city," Van de Kamp said. "We're out here trying to do a straightforward, objective job. So that format is a problem for me."

He said he was planning to talk about the issue Monday with City Administrator Mark Whitworth, who asked him to talk to the reporter.

"I'm going to tell him I felt that they did not give me the full picture when I was asked about doing an interview," said Van de Kamp, adding that he thought it was for "straight article" by the chain of newspapers that owns the Star-News. The ads also ran in the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Daily News of Los Angeles.

The advertisement features a smiling Van de Kamp overlooking a downtown Los Angeles vista. There is a question and answer segment as well as a section, in larger type, praising Vernon's economic value to the region, which Van de Kamp described as "a plum piece for Vernon."

Van de Kamp's involvement as an independent ethics advisor is a centerpiece of Vernon's campaign to stave off a bill by Assemblyman John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) to disincorporate the city. Perez has accused the largely industrial city, which has fewer than 100 residents, of being a fiefdom run for the economic benefit of a small cadre of officials. Vernon's former city administrator is currently facing public corruption charges. Five years ago, prosecutors filed public corruption charges against the longtime mayor and another city administrator.

Along with Van de Kamp, who was also the Los Angeles County district attorney, the city has hired Robert Stern, former general counsel of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. They are being paid $550 and $450 an hour respectively by the city.

Fred MacFarlane, Vernon's media consultant, called the advertisements a mistake. He said that he had suggested Van de Kamp as a subject for an advertisement to representatives of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group publications. Vernon has purchased a series of advertisements from the group, some of which have already been published.

"I never should have suggested Mr. Van de Kamp, plain and simple. I cost my client, and did damage to Mr. Van de Kamp's reputation for having done so," MacFarlane said, adding that he planned to apologize.

He said that Van de Kamp and other attorneys completing the ethics review were working independently from city officials.

"We've dealt with Mr. Van de Kamp at an arm's length distance to ensure that his opinions aren't influenced by the city in any way," MacFarlane said.

The interviewer, Edward Barrera, is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor. In an interview Friday, Barrera said that he never identified himself as a reporter to Van De Kamp, and that he assumed that everything had been explained to him prior to the call. "The miscommunication certainly wasn't on my end," he said.

Afterward, Van de Kamp said he mentioned the interview during a conference call with his team of Vernon ethics advisors. One of them, Cynthia Kurtz — president and chief executive officer of the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership — said that she noticed Vernon had advertising contracts with the newspaper chain.

The next day, he saw the ad, which took up nearly two full pages.

"I thought, 'Good grief,' " he said. "I saw the print and thought, 'That doesn't look like a regular article.' "

Van de Kamp said he is not reconsidering his work for the city. He said he expected some bumps in the road, adding that he feels Whitworth really wants to "do the right thing" as far as making positive changes in Vernon.

"How far that goes is the $64 question," Van de Kamp said.

hector.becerra@latimes.com

sam.allen@latimes.com

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