A federal court judge sternly criticized the Los Angeles city attorney’s office Friday for conduct that forced him to order six former police commissioners into court or be held in contempt.
U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts in Los Angeles reproached Assistant City Atty. Michael Fox for making a “mess” out of pretrial proceedings in a case involving a shooting by the Los Angeles Police Department’s secretive Special Investigations Section.
Attorney Stephen Yagman, who is suing the Police Department, had sought to question under oath the former commissioners about department policies, but had been prevented from doing so for two months. At the end of Friday’s hearing, Letts ordered the ex-commissioners to go to a nearby meeting room and begin their depositions.
Letts’ lecture to Fox came on the heels of disclosures in early July that in at least eight other instances this year, federal judges had brought sanctions against lawyers serving under City Atty. James K. Hahn for failing to provide information needed by plaintiffs suing the police for allegedly using excessive force.
On June 25, Letts ordered the former police commissioners to appear Friday and explain why they had not shown up earlier for depositions.
The former commissioners are Robert I. Weil, a recently retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge; Stephen Gavin, the one-time president of the Central City Assn.; Elbert Hudson, a prominent South-Central businessman; Frank Hathaway, former president of the Los Angeles Athletic Club; James Fisk, a former deputy police chief, and Sam Williams, a prominent downtown attorney who is a longtime ally of Mayor Tom Bradley and was once chairman of the Police Commission.
At the start of Friday’s hearing, Letts said that summoning people to his courtroom with the threat of contempt charges “is not something I do lightly.”
However, the judge said that given the way the case had proceeded, he felt that it was the only way to assure their presence.
Fisk, Hathaway, Hudson and Weil all made brief statements. Each said they had told Fox or one of his assistants that they could not be present at a June 24 deposition and were given the impression that the time would be changed. They said they had not realized there was a problem until they received their notices to appear in court Friday.
At one point, Fox apologized to the judge for miscommunications between his office and the former commissioners in explaining why they had not come to the depositions.
Later, the judge said several times that he was not criticizing the commissioners personally. But he said their statements confirmed an admission of Fox: “This mess is his fault and the victim is Mr. Yagman and his client.”
Yagman, who specializes in police brutality cases, asserted that the conduct of the city attorney’s office in this case was reflective of a long-term pattern in cases involving alleged police misconduct. “In fact,” Yagman said, “this is a game that’s going on. It’s a bad game . . . and it ought to stop.”
Letts responded: “I permitted that statement to be made because it’s consistent with my experience in this case.”
Last year, Federal Magistrate-Judge Robert Stone, who has handled part of this lawsuit, ordered the city attorney’s office to pay $1,655 to Yagman because of extra costs he had incurred as a result of an earlier dispute over pretrial discovery.
The case that gave rise to Friday’s hearing is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 1. In the lawsuit, the families of three robbers killed by the Police Department’s SIS unit and a fourth man who was wounded after a holdup at a McDonald’s fast-food outlet in Sunland in February, 1990, accused the police of using excessive force and murdering the three men.
The suit, filed against the city, Mayor Tom Bradley, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and about 100 other defendants, seeks more than $10 million in damages.