Beleaguered Vice Mayor Frank Blaszcak says he thought long and hard before hitting an assortment of civic and political leaders with a long-threatened lawsuit this week.
“I had hoped that I could avoid filing it and save the city from any more controversy,” Blaszcak said Monday, at a press conference in the back yard of his San Gabriel home.
But his critics kept spreading “absurd lies” about him, charged the vice mayor, who was elected to the City Council in a bitterly contested election last April and faces a recall election on May 23. The lies, he said, centered on charges that he had trafficked in illegal drugs.
Blaszcak’s lawsuit, filed Monday against 10 prominent San Gabriel residents, including a fellow councilman, a former mayor, two former planning commissioners and the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, has stirred up an already volatile political scene and brought a dash of celebrity to this fractious little city. The suit does not specify the amount of damages sought.
Joining Blaszcak at the press conference to announce the suit was attorney Melvin Belli, dubbed the “King of Torts” by Life magazine more than 30 years ago for his success at winning large personal injury settlements.
The flamboyant San Francisco attorney, who compared Blaszcak to Jimmy Stewart in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” will serve as Blaszcak’s trial lawyer.
L. Scott Karlin, a Tustin-based lawyer, will handle the preliminary parts of the action, which was filed in Pasadena Superior Court.
The defendants in the suit, whom Blaszcak is charging with libel, slander, civil conspiracy and infliction of emotional distress, include City Councilman Sabino Cici, former city treasurer and Mayor Helen Achilles, former planning commissioners James Dickson and Fred Paine, and civil service commissioner Stuart Riddle.
‘Attempt to Bully’
The other defendants are San Gabriel residents Jeanne Tutich, Jerome Silverman, Suzanne Paine, Alice Rozan and Sally Baldwin. Tutich is the wife of Police Chief Don Tutich. Suzanne Paine, Fred Paine’s wife, is director of the San Gabriel Chamber of Commerce.
Councilman Cici, who said that he will ask the city attorney to defend him, charged that the suit “just proves Blaszcak’s arrogance and his attempt to bully the public.” Riddle declined to comment.
Alice Rozan characterized the suit as a “frivolous action.” She denied that she had circulated lies about Blaszcak during last year’s campaign, in which she worked for losing candidate Michael Falabrino. “I merely got a copy of a story in the Orange County Register (reporting on Blaszcak’s difficulties in 1979) and told people about what I had read,” Rozan said.
Dickson, Tutich, Silverman and the Paines could not be reached for comment.
Helen Achilles, who lost her job as city treasurer to John Janosik in last year’s election, said she had not been involved in the campaign against Blaszcak. “I ran my own campaign,” she said.
But Achilles, who served two terms as mayor in the 1960s and 1970s, said the recall campaign hinged more on Blaszcak’s controversial purchase of a $2,100 car telephone at city expense than on allegations concerning drugs.
“People would ask, ‘Is that the guy with the telephone in his car?’ ” said Achilles. “That’s all they had to know.”
After an uproar about the purchase last summer, Blaszcak returned the telephone to the city.
The events described in the suit have been part of a longstanding acrimonious debate in San Gabriel about the pace of development in the city, involving opposing factions vying for political power.
“I have a moral, as well as a civic, obligation to see this thing through,” said Blaszcak, who has been closely associated with the city’s slow-growth faction, which has dominated the City Council since last April.
Blaszcak, 42, charged in his suit that the defendants had slandered and libeled him in the 1988 City Council campaign, in which Blaszcak was one of three slow-growth proponents who defeated the incumbents, and in the petition drive to have him recalled.
He displayed mailers distributed by a group called Concerned Residents of San Gabriel, which accused him of being “involved in drug sales.”
Another mailer from the same group charged that Blaszcak was a “transient individual” and a “non-property owner,” who was guilty of “bullying and harassing citizens.”
Denied Offering Drugs
The mailer alleging Blaszcak’s drug involvement cited incidents 10 years ago, when Blaszcak was public information director for the city of Santa Ana. Police charged him with giving a police officer a marijuana cigarette and offering to procure $60 worth of cocaine.
But the district attorney found insufficient evidence and declined to prosecute. Blaszcak subsequently resigned from his job.
“There was an exchange about drugs,” Blaszcak said at the press conference. “I categorically deny that I offered to sell drugs (to the policeman). He, in essence, asked me if I could provide them, and I told him I could not.”
Baldwin, the only person listed on financial disclosure statements as a member of Concerned Citizens of San Gabriel, said that her involvement in the councilmanic campaign had been minimal, though she acknowledged that she was listed as the group’s treasurer.
“I did nothing during the election,” she said. “I went to two meetings.”
Baldwin said she had not contributed in any way to composing or distributing the mailers. She conceded that she had participated in the recall drive. “I said nothing slanderous or libelous,” she said. “I exercised my rights as an American citizen.
Belli contended that falsely charging Blaszcak with being involved with drug sales was particularly damaging to his client. “You can’t find anything more damaging than that in trying to defeat someone for public office,” said the white-haired Belli, who was dressed characteristically in a black suit and cowboy boots.
Belli described the situation in San Gabriel as a precedent-setting one in which a “good man” was taking on “developers and bankers, who arrogate the collective conscience to themselves.”
“If you let these special interests get by with what they did here . . . you’re going to make it very difficult for people down in Alabama or up in Seattle,” said Belli, who said that he had just flown back from Alaska where he had gone to view a display of the Northern Lights.
He said the case would serve as a “warning” to others that “if you’re going to defame a good man who’s running for public office, you better watch out.”