The Watchdog With Scant Time to Watch

The Los Angeles County Grand Jury is supposed to be the people's watchdog, exposing corruption and inefficiency in government from the Civic Center to small suburban city halls.

As anyone familiar with the process knows, that isn't how it works. Actually, the grand jury consists of civic-minded, part-time volunteers whose primary job is to decide whether to indict accused criminals. Just a small portion of their time is devoted to a second but equally important part of the grand jury's assignment--examining the efficiency and honesty of our officials.

Smart politicians have long been aware of the situation. So when reporters uncover waste or dirty dealings, the pols immediately turn the matter over to the grand jury. They do this knowing the overworked panel will never have time to investigate. It's like dumping a potential scandal into a bottomless pit.

Even so, the aura of the grand jury remains. The judges, who appoint the jurors, add to this by wrapping the operation in secrecy, insisting that what happens in the jury room must remain confidential for the term of the jurors and sometimes forever after. A few years ago, several grand jurors were unhappy with the support county officials were giving them on an investigation. A few wanted to complain to the press. But the presiding judge warned them they faced the possibility of prosecution if they talked. Understandably, they remained silent.

You can imagine my surprise when I received a call from Richard Mankiewicz, a member of the 1992-93 grand jury. He said he and a fellow juror, Don Dodd, thought the system stank. They wanted to go public.

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Mankiewicz, a retired management consultant, is liberal. Dodd, a retired Air Force contracting administrator, is conservative. "We are exact opposites on anything you could imagine," Mankiewicz explained when I met the two of them. But they agreed on one thing--the failings of the grand jury. Together, they wrote down their thoughts on two single-spaced pages, which they handed to me.

"The Grand Jury. That sounds impressive," they said. "After all, the law empowers it to investigate, without fear or favor, government operations anywhere in the county and to make recommendations for their improvement. . . . The law even requires that those who were the subjects of the investigation respond to the jury's recommendations in 90 days.

"Recently, we . . . were given copies of the responses to the recommendations we made to the County Board of Supervisors. Reading the flatulently evasive and generally unresponsive answers made it plain to us just how ineffectual grand juries are. . . . One cannot escape the conclusion that grand juries are merely meant to give the appearance of citizen watchdogs but (are) prevented from acting as such."

They said a major weakness is that the jury "is pretty much a flunky of the district attorney." A deputy district attorney is assigned as adviser to the jury and keeps it busy four days a week on criminal matters, "with precious little time left for government oversight."

When we talked, they expanded on the involvement of county lawyers. Another legal arm of the county, the county counsel is the jury adviser on many non-criminal matters, such as government malfeasance. Both Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and County Counsel DeWitt Clinton are powerful members of the county government Establishment, a group notably allergic to watchdogs. "They've got a conflict of interest," Dodd said.

Mankiewicz and Dodd noted that the law permits creation of a second grand jury. It could spend all its time investigating government. They recommended adequate outside advice to end dependence on county lawyers and other officials.

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A few weeks after our meeting, I was invited by a member of the current grand jury to have lunch with the group.

I read portions of the Dodd-Mankiewicz memo to the jurors.

A number of them agreed with the main points. Like Mankiewicz and Dodd, they are overwhelmed with criminal cases. They said the county needed a second--watchdog--grand jury. One said jurors had actually broached the idea to judges and the D.A.'s office, but were told there was no room for a second jury to meet in the crowded Criminal Courts Building.

The juror scoffed at that, noting that another court building, just a couple of miles away, was two-thirds empty. The fact is, the juror said, the county just doesn't want a full-time investigating grand jury poking around.

The juror had it right. The county judges and lawyers fear tough, inquisitive jurors. What's most important to them is protecting their own interests, and those of other county officials.

As Mankiewicz and Dodd wrote, until this changes, "it is our view that it is a mistake for anyone to serve on the Los Angeles County Grand Jury."

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