Embattled Police Chief Willie L. Williams on Monday filed a $10-million claim against the city of Los Angeles and its Police Commission, contending that his privacy was violated and his reputation defamed when copies of his confidential personnel records were obtained by The Times.
Williams also asked the city to launch an investigation into the source of the document leaks, echoing a request Friday by City Councilman Nate Holden. Filing the claim represents an extraordinary step for Williams, who had earlier threatened legal action but backed off when supporters warned that a lawsuit could permanently rupture his relationship with City Hall.
"There just doesn't seem to be any other viable option. He's not going to sit up there as a sitting duck and permit these violations to go unaddressed," said Melanie E. Lomax, the chief's lawyer. "There's obviously been a deliberate effort to smear the chief. It continues to distract him from his efforts in investigating rogue officers and the whole reform movement."
The claim, which must be filed as a precursor to a lawsuit, focuses on an article in Friday's Times that detailed a Police Commission investigation into whether Williams improperly accepted free hotel rooms in Las Vegas or tickets to Universal Studios and then lied about it to the commission.
The claim charges that the published accounts were "politically inspired" and "represent part of a pattern of character assassination against" Williams, who took over as LAPD chief in June, 1992. It contends there has been "an established pattern of illegal disclosures made for the sole purpose of irreparably damaging [Williams'] career and career opportunities."
Art Mattox, vice president of the five-member commission, said he was angry and distressed to hear of the chief's latest salvo in a saga that has dogged the department for months.
"It's extremely distressing, as a commissioner who serves the city and receives zero compensation, to have the threat of a lawsuit hanging over my head for something I didn't do," Mattox said. "I feel everyone that volunteers as a commissioner has been slapped in the face by this action."
Mattox and commission spokeswoman Elena Stern repeated their insistence that the commissioners were not the source of the leaked documents.
"The commission fulfilled its responsibilities to investigate the chief and concluded that process earlier this year, thus closing the door on the matter," Stern said in a statement on behalf of Commission President Deidre Hill, who could not be reached for comment.
The commission voted earlier this year to reprimand the chief, but did not release the contents of its investigation into whether Williams was given free accommodations in Las Vegas. The City Council later overturned the reprimand, without even looking at the file detailing the investigation.
But documents obtained by The Times showed apparent contradictions between Williams' denials that he had received free accommodations and receipts showing he in fact got "comped" rooms at Caesar's Palace. The chief said Friday that the problem was one of semantics and that he did not consider the rooms free, only "comped" in exchange for his wife's gambling, a perk available to the general public.
The commission concluded otherwise, the documents revealed, finding that Williams had initially denied accepting any free accommodations and then offered different explanations as the investigation unfolded.
"Your responses to the board . . . were neither accurate nor forthright and were misleading," the commission concluded in imposing the reprimand, according to the chief's file.
Councilman Rudy Svorinich said he was disappointed with the chief for escalating the controversy with legal action rather than trying to shelve it, as the council did by overturning the reprimand.
"I just think it is ill-timed," Svorinich said. "I understand why he is doing it, but I don't agree with it. If we're actually trying to bring this city together, and we're actually trying to put this [Las Vegas investigation] behind us, this doesn't accomplish that."
Mayor Richard Riordan had little to say Monday about Williams' latest move, which is sure to expand a growing gulf between the mayor's office and the chief.
"The chief has a right to bring legal action against the city of Los Angeles if he feels he has been wronged," Riordan said in a statement. "We have an obligation to continue to work together and focus our energies where they belong: serving Angelenos, fighting crime on the streets of Los Angeles."
City Council President John Ferraro and Councilwoman Laura Chick, who chairs the panel's Public Safety Committee, declined to comment Monday. But a few council members expressed sympathy with the chief's action, repeating earlier criticism of the LAPD officials who launched the investigation of the chief in the first place.
"I'm sorry it has to come to this, but I think he felt pushed against a wall, that this was his only alternative," Councilwoman Rita Walters said. "It is, indeed, unfortunate, that he has been treated in such a way that he felt he had nowhere to turn to get this resolved other than the court."
Councilman Mike Hernandez added, "Someone's trying to undo him and he's reacting to that. Where does the chief go to appeal except the courts?"
Holden said the chief "has an automatic victory" in his legal claim because "absolutely he was defamed."
"He has been damaged," said Holden, perhaps the chief's closest ally on the 15-member council. "The question is what is the right amount."
Filing the claim leaves Williams in the awkward position of being a legal adversary to his employer. His predecessor, Daryl Gates, stood in a similar spot when he tried to force the city to pay for his legal bills in connection with the 1991 Rodney King beating. City Atty. James Hahn successfully blocked Gates' bid.
"The way this drumbeat has kept up against him, I'm sure it's raised some questions in his mind about his ability to run the department," Walters said. "They have got to quit this underground whispering campaign and shouting campaign and following him around and doing everything they can to undermine his confidence."
Lomax insisted, however, that Williams would remain effective as police chief despite the controversy swirling around him.
"He's been doing his job--he's going to continue to do his job," she said.