Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan’s practice of having his secretary listen in on his phone calls--sometimes without the knowledge of the person on the other end of the line--was sharply criticized Friday by Riordan’s predecessor, former Mayor Tom Bradley, who questioned the legality of such monitoring.
Bradley, now a private attorney, was one of a number of prominent political figures raising questions about the behind-the-scenes listening and note-taking, described in a Times story Friday.
“I never had such a policy or practice,” Bradley said. “I dialed my own numbers and took direct calls. Certainly my secretary never listened to the conversations I had. It seems to me this borders on being illegal, if not clearly illegal.”
A majority of the 15 members of the City Council also criticized the mayor, either directly or through aides, although some put their comments off the record. One who spoke out is Jackie Goldberg, who urged Riordan to end the practice, saying: “I thought we put Watergate to rest.”
“His motives may be as pure as the driven snow,” she added. “But you just don’t listen in to conversations. As parents, we get after kids who do this.”
Council members Mark Ridley-Thomas, Rita Walters and Mike Hernandez also complained. “I don’t think there are any degrees of ethical behavior,” Walters said. “It’s like being pregnant. You’re either ethical or you’re not.” When she has a sensitive matter to discuss with the mayor, she said, she will do it face-to-face from now on.
Other council members came to the defense of the mayor. Council President John Ferraro said the technique makes sense to him. “I don’t do it and I don’t plan to do it, but that’s how Dick did things in private business and it worked there,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Councilman Nate Holden said the practice does not bother him because he does not say “anything to anybody that I wouldn’t want on the front page of the L.A. Times.”
Deputy Mayor Robin Kramer said the mayor’s office received 25 calls from the public on the matter Friday, which she characterized as a minor response, and had not heard any criticism from council members. Still, she said, “to the extent that this has bothered anyone, we will try to make it very clear when anyone else has joined the mayor’s conversations.”
Riordan declined comment, and made no mention of the issue during a Town Hall Los Angeles luncheon speech. He said he had not read the newspaper article. “I’ll read it when I get home,” he said.
In a recent interview, Riordan said he usually notifies people that his secretary, Carole Guillen, is on the line, and said she is simply helping him keep track of the crush of business he conducts over the phone. “The system works very well and it’s very ethical,” the mayor said. “I have nothing to be ashamed about.”
He disagreed with sources who said his secretary routinely took down conversation summaries without the knowledge of the person on the other end of the line.
Some experts in privacy law questioned the legality of the mayor’s practice. The law requires that all parties to a “confidential communication” be notified if it is being monitored by someone else.
The city attorney’s office said city officials should notify all parties whenever someone is listening in on a call. Officials said they had had no plans to contact Riordan directly.
In an interview, Assistant City Atty. Charles I. Goldenberg, chief of the special operations bureau, said he knows of no similar cases that have been prosecuted and doubts whether the practice violates the law. “I suspect that the mayor’s office reads the newspaper. The city attorney’s office view is there.”
In the midst of criticism, there were quips.
Linda Griego, executive director of RLA, raised the issue in the form of a joke when she introduced the mayor at the luncheon.
“During all those conversations where I thought Dick Riordan wasn’t listening to me, I’m glad to know that Carole was,” Griego said, prompting laughter from the audience of more than 500 business executives.
In City Hall, conversations began with the query, “Is your secretary listening in?” But there were also serious behind-the-scenes discussions about the mayor’s policy.
Some said they had an inkling in the past that Riordan was not the only one on the line. One official said that during a conversation with the mayor, Guillen once came on the line unexpectedly and corrected a point that the mayor made. “I was really confused,” the official said. “I was not notified she was there.”
Meanwhile, representatives of the union representing the city’s executive secretaries said they oppose the practice and do not know of it occurring outside the mayor’s office.
“I don’t know of any boss that would ask an executive secretary to take notes anonymously,” said Pat Moore, president of Local 3672 of the American Federation of State, Local and Municipal Employees. “I would feel very strange having to monitor a conversation without everyone knowing I’m on the line.”