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Sneaking Suspicion on the Phone

Just about the time the story broke about Mayor Richard Riordan’s secretary listening in on his telephone conversations, I received a call from a retired mayor, Tom Bradley.

I was surprised to hear his voice. Bradley hadn’t talked to me since 1989, when I began writing about his junkets and calling him “Traveling Tom,” a name inspired by the journeys of his junketing predecessor, Traveling Sam Yorty.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken notes on the exchange. Unlike Riordan, I didn’t have a secretary to transcribe our conversation. Anyway, we’re forbidden to surreptitiously record phone conversations here at the paper.

The voice was the same--monotone, expressionless, although there was a slight gravelly quality that I didn’t remember from before. Maybe it was age, or a cold. But what startled me was his vocabulary. Bradley had chewed me out before, but never with this assortment of hells and damns. He told me I had no principles.

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Bradley was angry because of a column I had written about Robert Inouye, who had been awarded $400,000 in damages after he was fired from his county transportation job for being a whistle-blower. Among other things, Inouye charged that contracts had been steered to a friend of Bradley, then a powerful member of the Transportation Commission.

I told Bradley my views of the story and pointed out that we’d never agree on this issue. He agreed with that, and hung up.

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My conversations with Mayor Riordan, on the other hand, have been unfailingly pleasant, even after I’ve been critical of him.

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He’s got sort of a soft, hesitant phone manner. You feel easy talking to him. Pretty soon, you’re calling him Dick and thinking he’s your pal.

Anyone who’s dealt with politicians can tell you that’s as dangerous as playing cards with a stranger who says he’s not too familiar with the game. I could see how, during Riordan’s corporate raider days, company owners might have been lulled by his unassuming manner, and then found themselves unexpectedly unemployed.

I particularly remember one call last November after I had written a column criticizing the mayor’s performance at a news conference during the fires. He had boasted on television how the fire was held at the Los Angeles city boundary, prompting me to say that he “looked like an old fashioned, small-town political hack.”

The phone rang in midafternoon. I think it was Riordan’s secretary, Carole Guillen, placing the call, although I can’t swear to it. As I said, I don’t have a secretary to keep track of these things. At any rate, in a moment I was on the line with the mayor.

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I guess you’re mad about the column, I said. No, Riordan replied. He said I was right, that he knew he’d screwed up.

I was impressed. I said I had covered a lot of people, but I couldn’t remember any who would have made such a call after that sort of criticism. We chatted for a bit, and then hung up.

I felt good about the conversation. I didn’t even ask myself what the catch would be.

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Last week, I found out when Times reporter Marc Lacey wrote about how Riordan has had his secretary eavesdrop on many of his phone conversations and take notes on them. Those confidential phone chats with the mayor might not have been so private.

I was bothered about this, although at first I couldn’t understand why.

For one thing, it might be a violation of laws against bugging private conversations. Reporters at The Times are forbidden to record phone calls unless they tell the person being interviewed. The ban was instituted several years ago.

But it wasn’t the law so much as the offensiveness of the practice. In earlier days, when surreptitious taping by reporters was permitted, I thought it was a tacky, sneaky practice.

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I often think about those days when I’m working at my second job, teaching reporting in the USC journalism department.

We’re supposed to devote part of the semester to journalistic ethics. I know that might seem a contradiction to some of you, but there are a few basic principles that govern our conduct. One of them, I tell my classes, is to be honest with your news sources. Don’t be a sneak.

Riordan wouldn’t be guilty of that if he would just tell his callers they are being monitored. There’s nothing wrong with the mayor having his secretary listen in to his conversations. He’s not a good listener. As Linda Griego, executive director of RLA, said: “During all those conversations where I thought Dick Riordan wasn’t listening to me, I’m glad to know Carole was.”

Maybe he forgets. Maybe he doesn’t know how to take notes. Big business tycoons like him have probably forgotten how. But tell us what’s going on, mayor. Don’t be a sneak.

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