Bradley’s Bright Aura Dims in Ethics Scandal : Politics: The year that began so optimistically turned sour as charges and investigations piled up.
It was to be Tom Bradley’s shining year. No longer would he be solely Los Angeles’ first black mayor. He would become the city’s first five-term mayor, and as 1989 opened he stood enticingly close to that goal.
Bradley’s strategic moves deterred his feared opponent, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, from running for mayor. Left only was an April electoral tussle with Councilman Nate Holden, a long-shot candidate. Bradley coasted toward history.
And then came a free fall that no one expected. Although Tom Bradley was reelected, the year that opened so optimistically has disintegrated, its promise poisoned by ethics scandals.
“The events surrounding the mayor touch at . . . Shakespearean tragedy,” said Councilwoman Joy Picus. “Had Tom not run for a fifth term, he would have been the most revered man who ever lived in L.A. and a role model for those who didn’t have it handed to them on a silver tray.
“The events that have surrounded him have tarnished his name forever, and he can never recover what was lost personally or politically.”
Bradley may have won the legal battles thus far--the city attorney decided against criminal prosecution and the mayor ultimately agreed to pay $20,000 for filing erroneous financial forms. But interviews with a cross-section of Los Angeles citizens, from community activists to the mayor’s intimates, draw a year-end portrait of a man who has suffered formidable, though not fatal, political wounds.
For many, Bradley has come to represent what can happen when a public servant stays in office so many years.
“History has told us that,” said Nikolas Patsaouras, a Bradley fund-raiser. “Once you’re in the same spot too long, you become complacent.”
The revelations that have rocked Bradley’s Adminstration during the last year have each raised essentially the same question: whether the mayor has used his position to benefit his associates and himself.
He took a job in 1988 as the only paid adviser for Far East National Bank, for example. Afterward, officials in the treasurer’s office deposited $2 million in the financial institution.
He lobbied the City Council to provide nearly $400,000 in city money to a pet project, an Africa trade task force headed by his friend and business partner Juanita St. John. She has failed to account for $180,000 and has been sued by city officials seeking to recover the money.
Bradley also has helped his close friend, Mary Anne Singer, build a small public relations business by marketing access to him and providing her clients and associates with official favors.
In 1987 and 1988, the mayor used his City Hall clout to engineer the sale of surplus city land to Allen E. Alevy at the same time that the Long Beach entrepreneur was raising tens of thousands of dollars for Bradley’s reelection campaign through a series of inner-city carnivals.
A federal grand jury is investigating whether the mayor received insider information to purchase securities through the brokerage firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert. The mayor’s investments were handled by an exclusive unit headed by junk bond wizard Michael Milken, who has been indicted on charges of insider trading and securities law violations.
Bradley’s fall from public grace was dramatic. In September, the day after City Atty. James K. Hahn issued a report critical of the mayor, which drove Bradley to a locally televised defense address, a Los Angeles Times poll found that only half of those who had voted for Bradley the previous April would do so again. Almost half of those polled said they had an unfavorable impression of Bradley--twice the level of February and four times the level seen in a 1986 survey.
Other surveys showed the same result. “He’s gone into decline,” said Mervyn Field, who conducts the California Poll.
Some contend that Bradley’s fall in the opinion polls was less a direct reaction to the ethical controversy than to discontent over the declining quality of life in Los Angeles.
“The public’s frustration with the city and the mayor has finally come together,” said political consultant Patrick Caddell.
In Bradley’s inner circle, Caddell’s words found resonance.
“The electorate is fickle, by and large,” said Fran Savitch, a public relations executive and former Bradley aide who is still close to the mayor. “There are a lot of problems in this country and in this city. I think people are dissatisfied in general. I think the mayor had occupied this very special place in their minds, and all of a sudden he may have made an error and people say, ‘Aha!’ ”
But many observers flatly disagree. Bradley, they argue, fell so far so fast because the allegations against him struck at his primary political strength--his reputation for integrity.
“When you build an image of many, many years and all of a sudden that image bursts, you do fall harder,” said Larry Berg, head of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
No politician can survive intact an almost daily barrage of allegations like those leveled against Bradley, said pollsters and political scientists.
“If there were a series of articles criticizing the Pope, the Pope’s ratings would drop,” said Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and a former deputy mayor under Bradley.
According to interviews, the most damaging disclosure about Bradley appears to have been the simplest: he worked as a paid adviser to Far East National Bank and Valley Federal Savings & Loan. It put him in the position of serving two masters.
Bradley has referred to his outside employment as an “error in judgment.” To his political enemies and even to his friends, it remains an almost inexplicable action.
“He was dumb in doing that,” said county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, an ally of the mayor for decades. “Why would he do something like that when he has a (city-owned) house, car, going to get a great pension? Why get extra money from a bank? It’s still crazy.”
Bradley added to the controversy by adopting what many consider to have been a muddled and ill-advised strategy.
“The single most damaging thing, which is a very easy thing to say in retrospect, was not being forthright and decisive and apologetic at the beginning,” said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political consultant. “Instead, he chose to do what many politicians do--stand fast, hold firm and think the storm will blow over.”
But it did not.
Bradley refused--despite calls from City Council members, his supporters and reporters--to provide details that would clear him. And in politics, the refusal to defend one’s self is frequently perceived as evidence of guilt.
His strategy also was occasionally contradictory, political observers said.
In May, for example, Bradley denied in an interview with Times reporters that he had created the appearance of a conflict of interest by accepting outside income. The next day, in a move his aides said had been pondered for a week, he reversed himself and apologized for creating such a perception.
Bradley’s aides today defend both the mayor’s integrity and the way he has handled the crisis.
“Continual battering on a day-to-day basis in the newspaper has to take its toll, but in the end Tom Bradley is the same man he’s always been,” said Bradley’s chief of staff, Mark Fabiani. “He’s the same mayor the people of the city have known for 16 years.”
Much of Bradley’s energy--and that of his staff--has been directed toward the legal inquiries into his behavior, to the detriment of efforts to shore up his public image. It was not until September--after a long summer in which federal investigators, council committees and the city attorney investigated Bradley--that the mayor stepped up and offered his own defense in a televised address.
But by then, according to the polls, opinion had turned against him, and Bradley’s well of public support had started to dry up.
Investigations of Bradley and his associates are expected to continue for months. The most significant is a wide-ranging Los Angeles federal grand jury probe of possible insider trading and political corruption violations in Bradley’s dealings with several brokers and financial institutions.
The state’s political watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, also has an ongoing conflict-of-interest probe of Bradley.
Locally, the Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney’s major fraud unit are moving ahead with their investigation of possible misuse of city funds by St. John and the Bradley-backed Task Force for Africa/Los Angeles Relations.
As the investigations continue, city officials and others have grown increasingly concerned that the Bradley controversy is distracting the city from more pressing matters.
“Our focus should be on critical issues, like people living on the streets, people being shot to death on the streets, gangs, drugs,” said Rosalinda Lugo, a former co-chair of the nonpartisan United Neighborhoods Organization, an Eastside community force.
“It angers me that we in Los Angeles are preoccupied with the mayor, rather than solutions to the problems that we, the people who live here, are having.”
In interviews, people across the city said that Bradley’s best hope for political revival would be a concerted effort to address urban concerns.
“I just hope that he goes for (making) history at this point, on a very active social and human agenda to finish out his 20 years,” said a supporter, attorney Melanie E. Lomax.
Lomax said she believes that Bradley has weathered the political storm--and noted, as polls confirm, that Bradley’s popularity remains highest in minority communities. “There is a large sentiment in the minority community that double standards are being applied to Tom Bradley, that a lot has been made of a relatively minor matter,” she said.
But others say the controversy threatens to turn Bradley into a lame-duck mayor three years before the end of his term. Already City Council members appear reluctant to follow his lead.
“The days when he could call certain members of the council and they would fall in line and vote for him--I don’t think that’s here now,” said council President John Ferraro.
However, Bradley recently has shown a willingness to take on the council on some issues. Councilman Hal Bernson was forced to revamp parts of the massive Porter Ranch development in the San Fernando Valley after Bradley publicly threatened a veto.
“Porter Ranch was some illustration that he was not willing to roll over,” said Michael Preston, a USC political science professor. “I think there is still some fire there.”
The Bradley controversy has spawned reforms designed to more strictly regulate the conduct of city officials and agencies.
In August, the council tightened procedures and increased its oversight of the city treasurer’s office, which was embroiled in controversy over the Far East National Bank deposits and its investment policies. The city also tightened controls over city-funded bodies such as the African trade task force.
Now the council is considering broad ethics reforms, including a package proposed by a Bradley-appointed commission.
“The mayor’s problems have served as a catalyst for constructive change,” said Geoffrey Cowan, head of the commission. “If Tom Bradley, who had such a reputation for integrity, could do these kinds of things, I think that illustrates more than anything else the need for . . . reforms.”
Among the painful questions pondered by Bradley’s allies these days is whether the broader legacy of the man--the first black mayor, the first five-term mayor, the political architect of downtown development--is forever sullied.
In interviews, several people compared Bradley to former President Richard M. Nixon, expressing hope that Bradley’s image, like Nixon’s, can be revived.
“His greatest accomplishment is to keep harmony and peace in this city,” said Patsaouras, the Bradley fund-raiser. “The man is a black who made it good. All of us of ethnic origins--we look up to him. We see a healing force.”
In the city’s black community, Bradley’s popularity remains high, and community leaders say the current tempest will not overshadow his accomplishments.
“All of this last six months or nine months will be part of the picture, but not a big part of the larger picture,” said Johnnie Cochran, a prominent black attorney. “I think when young kids look up, they are going to see a city where 16% are black . . . and this black man has been able to be (elected) mayor five times. You cannot overestimate the importance of that message to young people in the barrios and ghettos.”
Bradley, in keeping with his recent reluctance to expose himself to interviews, declined to answer questions for this article. But friends suggest that Bradley remains upbeat. As the year came to a close, one friend said, the mayor’s eyes began to take on a familiar spark of enthusiasm, one that had been missing for months.
On his inaugural day last July, Bradley spoke in tones of defiance and frustration, of his determination to press ahead.
“All my life, whenever I have encountered obstacles, whenever the hills have gotten steeper or the head winds have risen up, I’ve just run harder,” he said. “And I don’t intend to stop now.”
THE MAYOR’S YEAR OF TURMOIL Key events and disclosures in 1989 during controversy that has enveloped Mayor Tom Bradley: March 21--City Treasurer Leonard Rittenberg orders that $2 million in tax funds be deposited in Far East National Bank after Bradley calls on behalf of the bank, which had employed the mayor as a paid adviser.
March 24--Bradley returns $18,000 he had earned in 1988 as a Far East adviser after a Herald Examiner reporter interviews the city treasurer.
March 31--City Atty. James K. Hahn launches probe of Bradley’s ties to Far East National Bank and Valley Federal Savings & Loan Assn., which also had hired him.
April 4--Bradley wins narrow reelection victory and resigns from board of directors of Valley Federal. He also sets up an ethics panel.
April 21--City controller audits city-funded Task Force for Africa-Los Angeles Relations, headed by Bradley business associate Juanita St. John.
May 3--City attorney gives U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Bradley’s statements of economic interest, which include stock purchases in companies that figured in federal investigation of Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham Lambert.
May 10--Bradley tells City Council that he made “an error in judgment” in accepting money from Far East.
May 23--Top Bradley fund-raiser Ira Distenfield resigns from Harbor Commissioner after The Times finds that he had secretly testified that he used his influence with Bradley to steer city business to his brokerage firm.
May 25--Justice Department opens preliminary criminal investigations of Bradley and House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Merced) in connection with their financial dealings with Drexel Burnham Lambert.
July 20--A city audit finds that City Treasurer Rittenberg placed $2 million of public funds in Far East after talking with Bradley last March and that treasurer’s office employees, using white correcting fluid, removed Bradley’s name from a document related to the deposits.
July 27--City Atty. Hahn files criminal charges against St. John for her failure to turn over subpoenaed financial records.
Aug. 5--Bradley summons supporters to the mayoral mansion to help raise $300,000 for his mounting legal bills.
Aug. 11--Bradley amends his financial disclosure statements, showing that he under-reported his holdings during a four-year period. The statements also suggest that the mayor bought shares of L.A. Gear and Worlds of Wonder before or just as they were made publicly available.
Sept. 8--City controller’s audit of the Africa task force finds that St. John owes the city $260,000 in missing taxpayer funds.
Sept. 13--City Atty. Hahn files six-count civil lawsuit against Bradley for failure to report at least $222,000 in personal investments, and concludes that the mayor has become indifferent to ethical concerns. However, Hahn does not find sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges.
Sept. 14--Bradley defends his personal financial dealings in a 40-minute televised address, and a Los Angeles Times Poll finds a sharp decline in public approval of Bradley’s performance as mayor.
Sept. 24--It is disclosed by The Times that Bradley has repeatedly intervened with city officials to promote the interests of Allen E. Alevy of Long Beach, a political contributor and fund-raiser, in his dealings with city agencies.
Sept. 29--A federal grand jury opens investigation into Bradley’s conduct in office and personal finances, including his business ties to eight financial institutions. Among the institutions is Columbia Savings & Loan Assn., owned by Bradley friend Abraham Spiegel.
Oct. 11--St. John invokes the 5th Amendment more than 60 times, refusing to answer City Council questions about $400,000 that Bradley helped secure for St. John’s Africa task force since 1985.
Oct. 13--In an interview, Bradley declares, “I haven’t done anything wrong” and predicts that he will not be indicted by a federal grand jury investigating his personal finances and professional conduct.
Nov. 22--After a six-month study, the mayor’s commission on ethics recommends sweeping reforms that would outlaw some of the practices that ignited the Bradley controversy.
Dec. 1--The city attorney accuses St. John of fraud and files a lawsuit to recover $388,920 in city funds.
Dec. 19--Bradley has helped a personal friend, Mary Anne Singer, build a public relations business by providing access and official favors to her and her clients, The Times reports.
Dec. 20--A series of carnival fund-raisers coordinated by Singer and arranged by Bradley supporter Alevy may have violated state campaign laws and a city policy against use of city land for political purposes, reports say. At least two of the carnivals were held on city land that Bradley was helping Alevy acquire.
Dec. 21--Bradley received tens of thousands of dollars from carnival fund-raisers in apparent violation of city campaign limits on small anonymous donations, it is reported.
Dec. 28--The city attorney and Bradley reach a $20,000 settlement of a suit against Bradley for failure to properly report his financial holdings.