Geoffrey Cowan, the former California Common Cause chairman drafted by Mayor Tom Bradley last week to captain a new City Hall ethics commission, wants to define a new era of propriety in state and local government.
But Bradley's critics say Cowan's hastily created panel may be nothing more than a face-saving mechanism for a mayor dogged by conflict-of-interest questions over fees he collected from local financial institutions.
"Bradley is very well known for . . . anytime there's a problem, he appoints a committee. Much later, the committee acts, with recommendations. And that's the extent of it," said City Council President John Ferraro.
Cowan, a 46-year-old public interest lawyer, UCLA lecturer and author who is well connected to the city's liberal elite, is undeterred. He insisted that his panel will be independent and, even before the seven members have met, he ticked off an array of ideas he thinks should be embodied in the panel's proposed ethics code for elected and top officials.
Cowan wants the panel to look at reforms that Common Cause has fought for unsuccessfully at the congressional level, including a ban on outside earnings, speaking honorariums and most gifts.
He would like to tighten up the so-called "revolving door" practice by which city employees, politicians or their aides move into private-sector or lobbying jobs related to city business.
And he wants the panel to recommend the creation of a new city investigative board that would have subpoena power and the authority to impose penalties and to enforce the new ethics regulations. Almost everyone agrees that the current 30-year-old code is toothless.
"I think often opportunities for reform come out of crisis," Cowan said. "We have here a unique opportunity in the recent history of Los Angeles to do something about . . . a serious problem. Maybe not as serious as it is in New York and Chicago, but it's serious.
"I want whatever we do here . . . to be absolutely the standard by which every other community (in the nation) will be judged," Cowan said.
Cowan is clear about the controversy that precipitated his appointment: Bradley's acceptance of tens of thousands of dollars from a local bank and a savings and loan that had dealings with the city. "He should not have done it," Cowan said. "I'm absolutely clear in my mind that he should not have done it."
Confidence of Others
Cowan's agenda may sound very ambitious, but those know him think he might just pull it off.
"I think he is a tremendous choice as someone to try," said Fred Wertheimer, Washington-based president of National Common Cause, a nonpartisan political watchdog group. "I think the climate is right . . . (and) politics in America travels from west to east. (Los Angeles) could be the model for cities across the country."
Cowan's name is not well known. "I have a passion for privacy," he said. But he is no newcomer to the political trenches. He has contributed to Bradley's campaigns and was part of a losing group of bidders a few years ago in one of City Hall's great lobbying battles over the awarding of a lucrative San Fernando Valley cable-television franchise.
Ranked first by a team of evaluators, his firm was passed over amid a final, intense lobbying drive when the matter went to a vote at the City Council. "I think what I saw there makes me vastly more sensitive" to how City Hall works, he said.
Cowan moves among the high circles of liberal Democratic politics and entertainment. For fun a few years back, he and several friends, including Democratic activist-lawyer-lobbyist Mickey Kantor, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, bought a minor league baseball team, the Stockton Ports.
The praise that Cowan's name evokes in liberal circles is effusive. "I'd like a buck for every time I've called Geoff Cowan for an opinion, especially on matters of judgment," said producer Norman Lear, a longtime friend. "He's like a walking neon that says: 'Decent. Decent. Decent.' "
"I can't think of anyone of higher moral integrity," Kantor said.
Cowan is a genteel, scholarly, graying man with young children and a politically active wife, Aileen Adams, a Bradley appointee to the city Fire Commission.
Background in Ethics
He brings to his sensitive City Hall assignment a wide background in political and media ethics.
It was an interest forged early in life. When he a was high school senior back East, Cowan's family was rocked by the television quiz show scandals.
Cowan's father, Louis G. Cowan, had once been a producer of "The $64,000 Question." When the scandal broke, his father was president of CBS, but no longer directly associated with the show. Though his father was never implicated in wrongdoing, Cowan said, he was forced to resign.
"CBS felt that it was uncomfortable for them to have him as their president. . . . They made it untenable," he said. His father, deeply wounded, according to his son, left television and became a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he helped found the Columbia Journalism Review, a watchdog publication for the mass media.
"My father's experience emphasized to me that, while I have . . . a very strong commitment to ethics . . . I'm also very concerned about unfair charges," Cowan said.
Cowan went to Harvard and then to Yale Law School, inheriting from his parents a sense of political activism and public duty, and enough money to freely fulfill it.
He was a freedom rider in the civil rights movement. He helped draft the landmark Democratic Party reforms in the late 1960s that opened up the presidential nominating process and reduced the influence of party bosses. He co-founded the nation's first public interest law firm in Washington and later became the first director of the UCLA Communications Law Program and practiced public interest law in Santa Monica.
As state chairman of Common Cause for the last four years, he pushed the organization's statewide campaign finance ballot initiative. He remains on the National Common Cause board, where he has been working on proposals for new ethics codes for state and local governments.
Writing Second Book
He continues to lecture part time at UCLA on media issues and is writing his second book, set in Los Angeles' Progressive political reform movement of the early 1900s. Later this year, he hopes to produce his play about the ethical dilemmas faced by key participants in the Pentagon Papers case.
Cowan will take time out from writing his book. Writing the ethics code will be challenge enough, given City Hall's contentious politics and the myriad gray areas between officials' public responsibilities and personal interests.
"Geoff will find it is easier to set the principle than establish the rule," said Common Cause Executive Director Walter Zelman. "When you start defining every single circumstance, you start having problems."
Cowan himself is not certain about how far to go in restricting officials' outside investments. For example, questions have been raised about a Riverside County land deal in which Bradley is a partner with a woman who runs a city-funded trade group.
Blind trusts could be a solution, Cowan said. "Those are dilemmas that you've got to struggle with . . . (but) you can't pauperize people (who) take jobs in public service," he said.
His greatest task may be building bridges to the City Council, which he hopes will ultimately adopt his panel's recommendations.
"This (ethics panel) could be construed as a deflection of the real issue," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, referring to the mayor's troubles.
Councilman Michael Woo, whose committee will soon delve into ethics issues, stressed that the effort by the Bradley-appointed panel "is independent of what the council does." He said his committee will not only consider how to strengthen the city's largely ignored ethics code, but will keep the pressure on the city attorney for a thorough investigation of the questions about Bradley's dealings.
Notably, both Woo and Ferraro questioned the need for a ban on outside earned income for council members, noting that few have received the kind of fees that the mayor accepted. Financial disclosure records show that is true. However, many council members do have investment income, some accept honorariums and several report receiving thousands of dollars in dinners and gifts from lobbyists, developers, amusement parks, sports teams and others.
Cowan said he hopes to reach some common ground with the council. "We don't want to be confrontational," he said.
But he also carries a stick.
His panel's recommendations, expected to be completed in a matter of months, could become a ballot initiative, he said, and Bradley has indicated that he would back such a measure, if necessary.