‘I Do What I Think Is Right,’ Heim Says : Harbor Official’s Style Stirs Controversy
The hotly debated appointment last fall of mayoral aide Ezunial Burts as Los Angeles harbor’s general manager focused attention on the commission that picked him, prompting a Times examination of its two most senior members, Frederic A. Heim and Jun Mori. The Times found tha t Heim and Mori, whose activities will be chronicled next, have churned up more controversy t h an any other commissioners in the city.
Los Angeles City Councilman Howard Finn thought the idea sounded delightful when Harbor Commissioner Frederic A. Heim invited him and his wife for an evening at the Music Center to see the Noel Coward comedy “Hay Fever.”
Although Finn was amused by the play, he did not find the events that followed very funny. Finn received an unexpected call from the city controller’s office informing him that Heim, a wealthy San Fernando Valley entrepreneur, had billed the Harbor Department $83 for the four choice seats, claiming that “harbor matters” had been discussed.
“When were we supposed to talk about business?” an incredulous Finn asked in an interview. “During the intermission?”
Finn reimbursed the city for his two tickets.
To those who have followed Heim’s public career, the Finn episode was one of many examples of the commissioner’s playing by his own rules.
As City Controller James K. Hahn put it: “What is appropriate in private industry is not appropriate in a public context. What Fred Heim has failed to understand in repeated conversations is that there is a difference.”
During his nearly 12 years on the Harbor Commission, Heim has earned a reputation from San Pedro to City Hall as Los Angeles’ most unconventional, controversial and durable commissioner.
His critics call him an arrogant autocrat possessed of an unquenched thirst to prove his importance. They say he has charted a course that is disruptive. Fellow commissioners have complained that he has operated behind their backs.
Heim’s supporters call him a no-nonsense financial whiz who has kept harbor bureaucrats hopping with his single-minded determination to bring the port wealth and respectability. He has championed causes as diverse as putting a youth camp on harbor property and removing harbor management positions from Civil Service protection.
By all accounts, Heim has positioned himself as the single most influential figure in the Port of Los Angeles, one of the nation’s richest harbors with an economic importance suitably reflected in its advertising slogan, “Worldport L.A.”
Heim said in a recent interview that it would be hard for him to leave the port because of a feeling that “it belongs to me.”
Holding a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, Heim is serving an unprecedented sixth term as president of the mayorally appointed Harbor Commission, a panel of five with broad authority over port finances and operations.
“A lot of people resent me because I do what I think is right,” Heim said, “and that tends sometimes to go against the interests of various people.”
Heim is widely seen as Mayor Tom Bradley’s right-hand man in the harbor. Bradley considers Heim a man of integrity who has made the port “truly first-class” and kept it free of major scandals.
Heim’s relationship with Bradley dates back to the mayor’s ill-fated 1969 bid against incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty. Among veterans of that campaign there remains a strong bond, a feeling of being pioneers in a historic journey across Los Angeles’ racial barriers.
Heim raised the money for Bradley’s first full-page ad in The Times. And when concerns about Bradley’s safety surfaced during the rancorous campaign’s closing days, the candidate lived at Heim’s secluded hillside home.
Last fall, Heim was instrumental in the commission’s hotly debated selection of longtime mayoral aide Ezunial Burts--a maritime novice--as the harbor’s executive director.
Theoretically, the Harbor Commission is supposed to act as a part-time board of directors--its members are paid $50 a meeting, twice a month. But Heim has carved for himself a much broader role.
Consequently, life has not been smooth sailing for the men who have been hired as general managers of the port and given the responsibility, on paper, of running its daily operations.
The last two general managers complained in interviews with The Times that during their combined tenure of a decade, Heim diverted their energies to unimportant issues, undermined their authority and created counterproductive internal strife and distrust--all, they say, in the name of sound management and progress.
Only last summer, then-General Manager Dr. E. L. (Roy) Perry, a soft-spoken man not given to hyperbole, warned in a memo to Heim that “communication between us has deteriorated to a level harmful to the effective management and operation of the department.”
In some respects, Heim runs the harbor as he would his business.
For instance, he has used commission secretaries to transcribe and type dozens of personal letters he dictates into a tape recorder, a practice prohibited by city law but for which he makes no apologies. Written on harbor stationery and mailed at city expense, some of the letters have been directed to other government agencies to get action on personal problems.
Heim once had a major shipper in the harbor, Delta Lines, make free delivery of some small appliances to relatives in Brazil--which he failed to disclose on his conflict-of-interest statement. A Delta vice president in South America described the delivery as a “very special favor” for Heim, who had regulatory control over the firm.
Picking a Car
When Heim’s business partner could not find a car with the color his daughter wanted, the commissioner stepped in. He had the port’s $61,000-a-year marketing chief contact a harbor business, again overseen by the commission, to see whether such a car was available. The car was found.
Using public monies, Heim has treated friendly politicians and harbor businessmen to the theater and dinners in exclusive restaurants, with the tab for two running as high as $150.
Controller Hahn, who next month will become city attorney, calls Heim the “entertainment commissioner.” Heim calls Hahn the “pipsqueak controller.” The commissioner defends his spending practices by saying that first-class people deserve first-class treatment.
The Harbor Commission governs the city’s financially self-sufficient Harbor Department, which essentially is a landlord, leasing waterfront land to such tenants as steamship lines and fishermen.
In that role, the commission oversees an international enterprise through which millions of tons of consumer goods and commodities are moved each year by a work force exceeding 20,000.
Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the city, who preside over agencies such as the Police Department and the Department of Recreation and Parks, harbor commissioners are required to function both as public officials and business executives. They are responsible for the harbor’s profitability.
Although the commissioners come to the job with no port management experience required, they are immediately thrust into a fiercely competitive business in which West Coast ports try to lure away each other’s tenants and the millions of dollars they bring.
Locally, the anxiety level has been heightened by shrewd shipping executives who, seeking favorable treatment, pit Los Angeles Harbor against its hugely successful nemesis, the Port of Long Beach. Sometimes the game gets downright petty.
In 1983, for example, Evergreen International threatened to find a new home at a “neighboring” port after seeing, in its words, “the distasteful and degrading manner in which a small stern photograph of one of our vessels” was used in a slick book produced by Los Angeles port officials to trace the harbor’s colorful history.
“Does the insignificant position given to our company in your book indicate the value placed upon our business done with the port?” an Evergreen representative wrote the Harbor Commission.
Publication of the book was immediately halted until a two-page color spread of an Evergreen ship could be inserted.
A shrewd and scrappy entrepreneur in the cutthroat fields of electronics and computers, Heim has flourished in the competitive port climate. He has dominated board colleagues less secure in the world of high finance and involved himself in so many areas of harbor management that he says he cannot remember them all.
“I think Fred Heim is a frustrated big businessman,” said one of his board colleagues, requesting anonymity. “In the harbor, he gets to play ball with the big boys, the biggest of the big boys.”
Outgoing General Manager Perry, a retired Army Corps of Engineers colonel, said that, largely because of Heim, 60% of his time was consumed by “really unimportant things,” such as answering the commissioner’s blizzard of memos.
Only “40% was spent doing things I considered constructive, such as meeting with tenants, long-range planning and spending more time with staff sections to iron out their problems,” said Perry, who earned more than $90,000 a year.
Embracing a “philosophy of management through adversarial relationship,” Perry continued, Heim has intimidated staffers so that they are “frequently more concerned with protecting their own interests than furthering the best interest of the port, and I think that is detrimental to the smooth functioning of the Harbor Department.”
On top of this, Perry said, the commissioner “undercut my authority” by encouraging staff members to run to Heim when they disagreed with the general manager.
“If you are the manager of an operation . . . and people believe they can go around you to accomplish whatever their goal is, then that undermines you. And that’s bad,” Perry said, emphasizing, however, that he and the commissioner were not always at odds.
Said Heim: “I think Roy would have liked me to be less activist.”
Perry was not the only general manager who had problems with Heim. Before him, there was Fred Crawford.
Heim, then a rookie commissioner, encouraged Crawford to apply for the job in 1974.
Five years later, Crawford argued successfully in a workers’ compensation hearing that the pressures of working for Heim and the commission helped push him toward a heart attack, state records show.
Heim was instrumental in ousting Crawford in a major harbor management shake-up in 1978. But he still describes the former general manager as a courageous leader who helped refurbish the port’s image, which had been damaged by a bribery scandal involving three commissioners in the late 1960s.
For his part, Crawford described Heim in a recent interview as “ineffective and disruptive.”
As for Burts, the harbor’s new general manager, he is optimistic.
“I believe I have the necessary authority and flexibility to make the management decisions.”
Twice during Heim’s tenure, harbor employees have circulated petitions to oust him, citing, among other things, his allegedly detrimental effect on morale.
Some officials at the Department of Water and Power were especially relieved when the second petition failed in 1977. That cleared the way for Heim’s return to the harbor after a disruptive year on the DWP commission.
Heim, an authority on alternative energy sources, had asked Bradley for a transfer to the powerful DWP board. But one year later, his freewheeling style cramped by the DWP staff and commission, Heim asked to return to the port.
“We were glad to see him go,” said a former DWP commissioner who asked to remain anonymous. And the feeling was mutual. “I was extremely frustrated,” recalled Heim. “I couldn’t get anywhere. . . . It was too institutionalized.”
At times, Heim’s conduct in the harbor has made waves with board colleagues as well.
Former Commissioner Arthur Bartlett, a minister, dubbed Heim “a kingmaker” who “plays an endless power game,” making “pronouncements to be obeyed.”
Former Commissioner Gene Kaplan faulted Heim for granting private audiences to port tenants and others with business pending before the board. Kaplan said she, too, was contacted “numerous times” but instructed callers to make their pitches before the entire commission.
“The commission operates as a body and not as an individual,” said Kaplan, who served beside Heim for 10 years until she was removed in Bradley’s housecleaning of city commissions last summer.
Kaplan said that although she “admires and respects” Heim, “very frankly I don’t know that any activity on his part furthered any business activity of the harbor. Maybe it did. I don’t know of anything in particular.”
Whether Heim’s conduct actually has hampered the harbor’s vitality is hard to assess. Port experts say Los Angeles Harbor, undergoing continuous expansion, would be successful no matter who was at the helm.
The harbor’s growth over the last decade is largely the result of a dramatic shift and surge in U.S. trading with such Pacific Rim nations as Japan and Hong Kong. Like the Port of Long Beach, Los Angeles Harbor is ideally located to capitalize on this trend.
Although the port last year racked up a record $41-million profit, Heim’s critics suggest that things could be even better with fewer disruptions by the commissioner.
Heim disagrees, taking a great deal of credit for the port’s robust bottom line.
He said he has helped build a team of first-rate managers, kept staffers “performing at their best” through his adversarial style and sheared fat from the Harbor Department, keeping it lean and profitable.
Heim also said that without his intervention, at least one and probably two major shipping lines would have abandoned Los Angeles Harbor because of poor treatment by port management executives.
Heim traces his problems with top port managers to his earliest days on the commission, when he persuaded the board to curb the growth of harbor salaries, bringing them in line with the lower pay of city workers doing comparable work elsewhere.
Every time port employees were denied cost-of-living raises, they “would be reminded of that son-of-a-bitch Fred Heim who caused all this,” the commissioner said, adding: “That is the largest single thing that set the tone.”
Beyond his management approach, Heim has set himself apart in other ways.
Scattered among his voluminous Harbor Commission files are letters on official stationery, typed by port secretaries, which suggest that he has attempted to use the clout of his position with other government agencies to remedy personal problems--conduct prohibited by the city’s code of ethics.
Heim sent four letters to the French consul general in Los Angeles, angrily complaining about a speeding ticket he received while vacationing in France and the officer who cited him. He signed each with his official title. Heim asked the consul general to undertake an inquiry and report back.
Last December, he fired off an angry letter, again on official stationery, to the mayor of Beverly Hills. Furious about being billed twice for a $28 parking ticket he had paid, Heim asked the mayor to investigate “and fix responsibility as well as appropriate consequences for the people who allow things like this to happen.”
When the city’s Public Works Department erroneously claimed that property owned by Heim in Chatsworth did not meet weed abatement regulations, he again flexed his official muscles. In the process, he unwittingly made a case against the propriety of his actions.
“What concerns me most about this thing,” Heim wrote to the director of street maintenance, “is that if I were a private citizen I would now have to spend the money to hire a lawyer or some other kind of consultant. . . . Fortunately, I am involved in our city government and, therefore, have other avenues open to me.”
Besides letters of complaint, Heim has written dozens of other non-business letters on board stationery to friends and business associates over the years.
The commission’s former longtime secretary, Sue Ota, explained in an interview that although it is a “no-no” to use staff time and city materials for personal matters, “we have no way of saying no. He is the commissioner and we must follow his instructions.”
Heim, for his part, denied using the port’s letterhead to impress anyone.
“I don’t think I ever thought about it twice,” he said.
Heim said he has the letters prepared at port expense because he would “not feel comfortable imposing on” a secretary at his business, where he said he has scaled back his work to expand his harbor activities.
“Moreover,” he added in an phone interview from his business office, “we don’t have a transcribing machine here. The harbor does. . . . It’s just totally much easier and that’s why I do it.”
Heim then noted, as he frequently does, that he has made great financial sacrifices for the city and has spent money without seeking reimbursement. Therefore, he argued, the personal letters are “a compromise that’s perfectly appropriate.”
Not so, according to Assistant City Atty. Tony Alperin, who is considered an authority on what public officials can and cannot do. Generally speaking, Alperin said, city and state regulations bar the use of city time, resources, staff and machinery for any private uses, including the preparation of personal letters, regardless of the number.
Despite Heim’s insistence that he doles out substantial sums for the city, the commissioner is not always so charitable.
A few years back, harbor records show, he submitted a $144 bill for 12 “solar music boxes” to be distributed as “promotional” gifts during a port trade mission to China. He bought them from Sensor Technology--his own company, an apparent breach of the city’s code of ethics.
“There’s a lot of codes and stuff and I made a mistake,” Heim said, noting that he bought the music boxes “at cost.” “This comes under the nature of oversight.”
A number of times, Heim returned from harbor trips and billed the port for shoeshines. When he charged off two in as many days during a Washington trip, the controller’s office said no. Heim said yes, and he refused to hand over $2.75.
“I absolutely hit the ceiling,” Heim said. “I said, ‘Goddamn it, I didn’t want to go to Washington in the first place. . . .’ I go there, my clothes get dirty, I’m doing all this and I have to put up with this from this pipsqueak controller who is trying to generate some publicity. . . .”
Hahn actually did not complain to reporters about the commissioner’s spending, as did his predecessor, now-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, whom Heim once called a “pompous, pious fraud.” Hahn, instead, complained directly to the mayor, who, the controller said, praised the commissioner’s hard work and dedication.
As for Heim’s Music Center outings, Councilman Finn was only one of at least three local lawmakers that Heim, at port expense, treated to a play and, occasionally, $100-plus dinners before the performance, city expense reports show.
Again, Heim claimed on his expense account that harbor business was discussed. But that is not the way Councilmen John Ferraro and Robert Farrell remember it. Both said in interviews that the evening was purely social.
Bradley’s office scolded Heim after the Finn flap in 1983. Since then, he has stopped entertaining city officials at the Music Center. But, according to city records, he has continued to take various harbor businessmen--though, as Hahn noted, “you can’t even discuss city business while you’re watching the play.”
Heim also continues to charge the port for dinners and lunches with city officials as a way, the commissioner says, of building rapport.
“I don’t think city officials need to spend public money to develop a relationship (with other city employees),” Hahn said. “There doesn’t appear to be any other department or any other commissioner that does that.”
Fair or not, Heim might get more plaudits for good work if it were not for his style. He has been widely criticized as a self-promoter.
“Fred sometimes tends to make remarks that are questionable as to truth,” said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, a Heim critic whose district includes the harbor. “To make something sound good, and to make you like him, he’ll tell you what you want to hear.”
For instance, Heim has taken credit for bringing Evergreen International and its millions of dollars in business to Los Angeles. Actually, Evergreen’s chairman has bestowed that honor mostly on Robert Kleist, the port’s former marketing chief.
“I’m perfectly willing to share the good that has developed from Evergreen with anybody who wants it,” said Kleist, now an Evergreen executive. “I guess he (Heim) has a whole different philosophy of life.”
In continuing to back Heim, Bradley has put on a show of loyalty confounding even his own staff members, few of them Heim fans. In fact, it was over staff opposition that Heim weathered Bradley’s shake-up of city commissions.
Trading on Contact
Two top mayoral staffers, who requested anonymity, accused Heim of using his relationship with Bradley to enhance his own stature. As an example, the two aides said, Heim has phoned Bradley before commission meetings and left word to have the call returned. When Bradley calls back, Heim then excuses himself, noting that he is wanted by the mayor.
“This projects an image to other commissioners and to the public that somehow Fred is the spokesman for the mayor,” said one of the ranking Bradley staffers. “And what really galls me is that he gets away with it!”
Responding to the criticism, Heim said he “very seldom” calls Bradley before a commission meeting and remarked that the comments of the two influential mayoral aides “is the kind of crap you run into in politics. . . . They probably resent the fact that when I call Mayor Bradley, he returns my call.”
In 1983, Heim flaunted his influence with Bradley in a bold display of how far he will go to get his way.
The lone dissenter in a vote to have the port’s recreational marina run by businessmen under leases with the city, Heim went straight to the mayor, pitching his case that the city could reap a bonanza by operating the facility itself.
Bradley, in a rare move, directed the commission to reverse itself, which it did by a 3-2 vote. The two commissioners who stood their ground--Bartlett and Kaplan--were booted off the board by Bradley during his commission shake-up.
Heim’s back-room maneuver touched off a furor in the business community of San Pedro and confirmed to many the perception that the board’s real power resides in Heim. As San Pedro Chamber of Commerce official Leron Gubler put it: “If Heim decided to step down, the community wouldn’t be unhappy.”
Bradley apparently would.
In an interview, the mayor said Heim has followed to the letter his orders in 1973 to improve the port’s financial position, eliminate favoritism and frills and keep the port free of graft.
Bradley said he wanted Heim “to use his business skills to bring that port under control. . . . I must say, he followed through on every one of those instructions.”