Probe of Council Critic Sparked Court Fight : Downey Gadfly Drops Rights Suit

Times Staff Writer

He is a formidable sight at virtually every City Council meeting.

At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Lennie Whittington is the council's most prominent critic. In the past, he has attended council meetings to berate city officials for the way they spend money, run city government and use city vehicles in their spare time.

On occasion, Whittington has attacked city officials so vociferously that they have adjourned meetings while he was still talking.

As Whittington himself said in federal court testimony last year, council members "always do everything so wrong that I usually criticize them at most every meeting I attend."

Every city has a Lennie Whittington, a gadfly who nettles city officials with persistent questions. But in Downey, Whittington so disturbed city officials that three years ago they resorted to what then-council member Bob Davila --now the city's mayor--called illegal tactics.

In 1982, council members ordered Police Chief Bill Martin to find out whether Whittington was dangerous by conducting a criminal investigation of Whittington's background.

The investigation prompted Whittington to sue the city in December, 1983, in Los Angeles federal court. The suit alleged that the police chief and four council members violated Whittington's civil rights by gathering embarrassing information and using it in an attempt to silence the longtime critic.

'Blackmail' Alleged

And it also led to charges by Davila, who said in court papers that council members used the information in an attempt to "blackmail" him into dropping Whittington as an unpaid assistant.

The city won the case last December, but Whittington, 48, a disabled Army veteran, appealed.

In an out-of-court settlement reached last week, the city, which had spent $51,138 in attorneys' fees defending the case, agreed to drop a request for $2,209 in court costs, according to Whittington's lawyer, Fred Wright of Torrance, and the city's lawyer in the case, Richard Levy of Los Angeles. In return, Whittington agreed to drop his appeal, said Levy and Wright.

In addition, both sides have agreed not to file any further lawsuits over the dispute, both lawyers said.

"I think it was a vindictive thing they did," said Whittington in a recent interview. "It's abusing their powers and their office."

He declined to comment further on his lawsuit or the settlement.

Council member Robert Cormack maintained that city officials were justified in investigating Whittington.

"We are right, we are totally right and we did nothing wrong," Cormack said in a recent interview. "It's bad enough having people like this in our midst and we ought to at least know who they are."

Probe Followed Threats

In papers filed in U.S. District Court in response to the suit, city officials said they ordered the investigation of Whittington after he verbally threatened Councilman Randy Barb in a 1982 confrontation at City Hall.

In the summer of 1982, Barb overheard Whittington arguing with a council secretary, according to legal papers filed by the city. Barb attempted to intercede, and Whittington became "increasingly irate." At one point, he allegedly leaned over a desk and told Barb "I'm going to get you, you're going to be sorry," according to the court papers.

In a deposition filed with the court, Barb said Whittington was "turning very red in the face and having his veins pop out on his neck and shouting very loudly." Barb said he had to ask Whittington to leave three times and threaten to summon police, before Whittington left the council office.

But Davila, a 28-year veteran Los Angeles police officer, said Whittington was never a security problem.

"He (Whittington) was a little over-reactive in bringing matters to the City Council's deaf ears," Davila said. Based on his knowledge of Whittington and accounts of the 1982 confrontation--which he did not witness--Davila said that Barb misconstrued Whittington's remarks as a physical threat, when Whittington was talking about political retaliation.

Kept on Talking

At a subsequent council meeting on Aug. 10, Whittington berated council members for allegedly holding secret meetings in violation of state law. Then, according to the city's legal papers, the council adjourned the meeting while Whittington was still speaking, and, in a closed-door session, discussed whether Whittington's earlier alleged "physical threat" to Barb should be taken seriously. The council then ordered Martin to do a background check on Whittington, according to the papers.

The papers do not say whether a vote was taken, although Whittington's suit notes that Davila objected to the decision to investigate Whittington, saying it violated state law.

On Aug. 24, the council again met in a closed-door session and Martin outlined the results of the investigation. According to Whittington's suit, Martin falsely told council members that Whittington had been convicted of assault and battery of a police officer and child molestation.

In a deposition filed with the court, Martin denied telling council members that Whittington had been convicted of child molestation.

And the city, in its reply, countered that Martin told council members that Whittington had a "series of misdemeanor convictions, all at least 10 years old."

The city's court documents do not specify what the convictions were for or how many there were, but it does discuss two arrests.

'Alarming Report'

According to the city's legal papers, the "more alarming report" was for an arrest for resisting arrest and alleged assault of a police officer.

The arrest took place almost 15 years ago, according to the court filings that include a copy of a Nov. 25, 1970, Bell police report. In that incident, Whittington went to the Bell police station where he was arrested on suspicion of grand theft for allegedly stopping payment on a check to his landlord, according to the court papers. While there, the police report said he cursed and spat at Bell Officer George Richards.

The other arrest that is specifically mentioned in the city's brief was for alleged "child molestation," according to the city's brief.

In his deposition, Martin said he told council members that Whittington "had been arrested for child molestation." Wright, Whittington's lawyer, said the child molestation arrest was "roughly 20 years ago" and resulted in conviction "on a lesser charge, not child molestation."

Details Under Wraps

City officials declined to provide additional details about the dates or places where any of the incidents or convictions took place.

In the brief filed for the city by Levy, the city said it was legitimately concerned about the Bell incident because "a person who was unafraid of assaulting an armed police officer should be taken seriously. Moreover, Whittington's height of 6-foot-1 and weight of 240 pounds make him physically capable of carrying out such threats."

The brief said the child molestation arrest was "relevant" because then-Councilman James Quinn "recalls that Whittington had requested appointment" to the city Parks and Recreation Commission.

Whittington declined to discuss his arrests and misdemeanor convictions.

In court papers filed by the city, council member Davila said that other council members had attempted to use the police investigation's results to "blackmail" him into dropping Whittington as an unpaid assistant during a 1982 closed-door council meeting.

"I told (Whittington) that they (council members) tried to blackmail me in the back room that I either disassociate myself with Mr. Whittington right then and there and remove him as my assistant or they--Cormack said this--that they would go out there (in a public City Council session) and expose Mr. Whittington right now."

In a December, 1984, decision, U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters said that Whittington had failed to show that council members had acted improperly and also failed to show that the city had adopted policies that violated Whittington's rights.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
73°