Sen. Greene Admits He's an Alcoholic, Is Taking Steps to Conquer Disease

Times Staff Writers

For nearly two years, legislators had talked privately about the erratic performance and behavior of Sen. Bill Greene, one of the most mercurial and bellicose lawmakers in the state Capitol.

He frequently was hours late arriving for floor and committee sessions and colleagues noted that he was given to slurred and bombastic speeches, volcanic eruptions of temper and to seemingly going out of his way to pick arguments.

Now, in a rare admission for an elected official, the Los Angeles Democrat acknowledges that he is an alcoholic and says he is taking steps to conquer his disease.

"I didn't realize how far I was going because I wasn't myself. You never see yourself like other people see you," Greene said.

He acknowledged that he attended committee hearings with a "full tank of liquor in me," and that he made angry, rambling, verbal assaults on witnesses testifying before those committees.

Prodded by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and others, the 57-year-old legislator from South-Central Los Angeles recently checked briefly into an alcoholism recovery facility and has joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

Greene's stay in the Northern California treatment center was paid, at least in part, by a politically active Los Angeles-based insurance company, public documents show. The firm, Surety Co. of the Pacific, paid $1,000 to Mountain Vista Farms of Glen Ellen for Greene's room and board, the company reported in its quarterly disclosure of lobbying expenses filed with the secretary of state's office.

Surety Co., of Northridge, is a frequent contributor to legislative and statewide political campaigns, usually on the side of Republicans. William Erwin, owner of the company, said the payment was made because of "a request made by one of our associates in Sacramento." He declined to elaborate.

Recruited by legislative leaders to help guide Greene along the road to recovery were a pair of longtime political friends: Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco), who for several years successfully has been battling his own addiction to drugs, and former Assemblyman John P. Quimby (D-Rialto), a one-time heavy drinker who now is a lobbyist and a member of AA.

But the topic is so sensitive that those who agreed to talk about Greene's alcoholism and his behavior in the Senate would do so only if they not be identified. Burton and Quimby refused to discuss Greene at all. Roberti is vacationing in Italy and unavailable for comment. Greene, who estimated he has had a drinking problem for about 18 months, is believed to be the first incumbent California state legislator to publicly admit to alcoholism and seek help for it.

"I thought I was covering it (alcoholism) to a degree and I wasn't covering it at all," Greene said in an interview in his cluttered Capitol office.

The imposing 6-2, 200-pound former labor union activist always has been known for his hard-edge legislative style. But in the last few years he has acquired what some associates describe as an increasingly mean streak.

In angry tirades delivered in a gravelly bass voice, he can devastate witnesses who dare to disagree with him. In the next breath, he can express genuine compassion for those to whom he says he has dedicated his 23-year legislative career--the poor, minorities and the working men and women of California.

Greene acknowledged that he harassed witnesses and legislative employees. He rationalizes this as his way of venting his anger over budget cuts in social programs of great importance to him.

"I felt the only way I could sit up there and take it is just either be so numb (with drink) that I didn't react in a normal way or to blast them. What I did in far too many cases was I just blasted people," he said in the interview.

"I drink when I am angry and when I want to get angry," said Greene, a self-described Scotch and cognac man, who stressed he had not had a drink in about a month. "When I would drink, I would drink way too much."

Greene said his disease "has affected my mood and personality" but insisted that "it hasn't affected my vote."

But so far this year, Greene has missed 42% of floor and committee votes, the second highest rate in the Senate, according to Legi-Tech, a private data reporting service.

Offers Explanation

Greene dismissed the report card, claiming that "those are bills I just don't care to vote for."

The Los Angeles senator is not without his defenders. "He was real unpredictable," acknowledged a former legislative staff member. But she said he could be "real complimentary" and ask good questions that "were not all off the wall."

Al Lee, chief deputy director of the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, whose department's budget goes through a committee chaired by Greene, calls the senator "a good member for us. . . . I have no complaints."

But others complained that Greene's unpredictability affected his performance.

Some committee witnesses said they deliberately withheld testimony from Greene for fear that his temper would explode. "Sometimes people don't want to bring up an issue he is interested in because it can set him off," one said. "Once he gets going, there is nothing you can do."

One longtime legislative employee said witnesses from state government agencies who would testify before committees Greene served on fervently hoped for hearings early in the day because "you could deal with him in the morning. In the afternoons, he was impossible."

One social services lobbyist said Greene "got so agitated" at hearings of his budget subcommittee that she would get almost physically ill. She said she quit attending the meetings and instead remained in her office and listened to the sessions on a remote audio speaker.

At one hearing in December, 1987, on enforcement of asbestos safety laws, Greene blew up at a Deukmejian Administration official. Greene told the man he wanted to scoop up a handful of asbestos dust and rub it in the official's face.

In May, 1988, Greene was arrested at Turlock in the San Joaquin Valley and charged with drunk driving. He was fined $500 and served two days in jail. A police report said Greene was urinating on the road, an assertion Greene denies.

In the clubroom atmosphere of the tightly knit Senate, leaders of both parties let the matter of Greene's behavior stew beneath the surface without confronting him. The reasons are unclear but seem to include a reluctance to intrude into what members considered a sticky "personal problem."

But the issue was brought to a head this spring after Greene delivered a blistering harangue against an employee of the legislative budget analyst at a committee hearing.

"He really ripped into her," said one witness. "He berated her and took her down."

Word of the incident reached Roberti and prompted secret discussions among a handful of senior Senate members who tried to analyze Greene's problem and propose a solution.

No Plan of Action

"They had no idea what to do," said a source, adding that the senators had never been faced with such a dilemma.

Admittedly lacking expertise, the senators turned for help to alcohol abuse counselors and to Burton and Quimby, both of whom had traveled the recovery route from substance abuse. They agreed to try to help.

At a face-to-face meeting with Roberti, Greene was told by the Senate leader that several complaints about his behavior had been received from state agencies, legislative employees and hearing witnesses, Greene recalled.

He said that Roberti told him: " 'You don't appear to be yourself. Are you drinking or anything?' "

"I said that 'I will have to admit that I have been drinking what I even consider far, far beyond my normal level,' " Greene recounted, noting that Roberti said his illness could be treated.

A couple of days later, Greene said he agreed to seek help and about a week after that--on July 6--he was admitted to the Sonoma County recovery facility. He checked out three days later, saying that the 28-day program conflicted with his legislative duties. Greene said he is now a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and recently returned to the Sonoma facility for a weekend. He said he intends further visits for intermittent treatment when his schedule permits.

"I'm a damn fool if I don't straighten up," Greene told a reporter, pulling from his pocket an AA meditation guide and reciting a passage.

In response to a question, Greene said his substance abuse problem was limited to alcohol and that he did not use illegal drugs. "That's not anything I am involved with," he said of drugs. "I am just not that kind of person."

Greene is proud that as a young man in 1963 he was the first black to serve as a clerk on the Assembly podium. He was elected to the Assembly in 1966 and won election to the Senate in 1975. He has never been seriously challenged for reelection, coasting to victory last year with more than 87% of the vote. He represents South-Central Los Angeles and Compton.

As chairman of the Senate Industrial Relations Committee, Greene is considered an expert on labor issues, ranging from worker safety to the minimum wage. He was one of the Senate architects of the workfare program for welfare mothers.

Greene said he does not intend to initiate discussions of his illness with his constituents. "It's a personal problem and one I am immediately solving. I doubt very seriously if any of my constituents will even ask me about it," he said.

Times staff writer Clay Evans contributed to this story.

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