L.A. Ethics Panel Fires Director in Closed Session

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission Friday fired Executive Director Benjamin Bycel, the aggressive and outspoken founding director of one of the boldest anti-corruption experiments in the nation.

Commissioners took the vote in closed session, and their refusal to say why they ousted Bycel only exacerbated the controversy that has surrounded the ethics czar almost from the start of his five-year tenure.

In overseeing a watchdog system approved by voters in the wake of scandals arising in the waning days of Mayor Tom Bradley's Administration, Bycel, 52, was in the dicey position of policing the very officials who controlled his salary, office budget and staff and with whom he was supposed to work on investigations and prosecutions.

Commission President Raquelle de la Rocha, appointed in July by Mayor Richard Riordan, said it would not be appropriate for her to discuss what led to the ouster, calling it "nothing unusual" for her as the new president to want a new director.

"There is nothing negative I'm going to say about Mr. Bycel's tenure," De la Rocha, a UCLA Law School lecturer and former member of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said after the meeting.

But only recently, in an interview with The Times about speculation that she was rounding up the votes to fire Bycel, De la Rocha voiced concerns that problems were "festering" between Bycel and other agencies. Those bodies included the FPPC, which began feuding with Bycel about a year ago.

Ethics Commissioner Edwin Guthman, one of two Bycel supporters on the five-member board, said he was outraged by the vote.

"It is my opinion that the commission majority crucified an honest, vigorous and effective public official on the altar of political and personal pique," Guthman said.

"The case made against Bycel was unfair . . . totally one-sided, and the action dismissing him was taken without regard for its impact on Los Angeles and on the effectiveness of the commission," he added.

The other Bycel supporter on the panel, Treesa Way Drury, had to leave for another appointment before the vote was taken. Commissioners Eve Fisher and Ann Petroni declined comment. The decision to fire Bycel was made on a 3-1 vote, sources said.

Bycel, who was not present for most of the two-hour session to determine his fate, sat stone-faced as De la Rocha announced his termination when the board convened the public part of its meeting.

He immediately left, with De la Rocha's concurrence, without saying whether he would accept the commission's offer to remain on the job as a consultant until February while the board seeks his replacement.

"For the last five years I have dedicated my energies to working with my staff to build and administer a strong, fair and effective Ethics Commission. We have succeeded," Bycel said in a typewritten statement he handed to reporters as he left the meeting room. Anything else he had to say, he added, "can wait until next week."

Although Bycel's troubles were widely known around City Hall, word of his firing nonetheless stunned many.

"I am distressed," said Councilwoman Laura Chick. "I have found Ben Bycel to be a very, very good leader for the kind of ethics reform we have needed. I have a lot of respect for him.

"I am very worried about the message [the firing] sends out," Chick added, "and I want an explanation."

Councilman Mike Feuer, who has worked with Bycel to bring additional anti-corruption measures to the council, said he was "very disturbed" because he fears that Bycel's dismissal might "detract from the very serious ethics issues facing the city."

But it was unclear Friday whether the council would invoke its powers to set aside an action by a city commission. To even consider doing so takes 10 votes of the 15-member council, which must act within five meeting days or the commission vote stands.

Council President John Ferraro said his colleagues should think twice before "getting involved with Ethics Commission decisions," given the watchdog nature of the board, whose purview includes the fund-raising activities of council members.

"I think once we start doing this, we are letting ourselves in for a bad situation," Ferraro said.

Since taking the job in 1991, Bycel has at one time or another knocked heads with the mayor's office, the city attorney and various present and former council members. But it was a rift with an agency that would be expected to be his ally--the FPPC--that appeared to have precipitated his downfall.

The year-old flap with the state commission stemmed from an incident in which information was leaked the day before a news conference announcing the results of a three-year city and state probe into political fund raising in Southern California.

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FPPC leaders accused Bycel of giving the story to reporters and stealing some of their thunder in the case, which netted about $1 million in fines. Bycel has always denied leaking the information.

Ironically, Bycel had recommended De la Rocha when the mayor was seeking a replacement for then-President Dennis Curtis, who by law could not be reappointed. Bycel publicly welcomed her appointment, praising her qualifications and expressing hope that her presence would help heal the rift with the state commission.

Sources close to the debate over Bycel's job said the local commissioners talked only with the many political enemies he had made during the course of commission investigations into conflicts of interest and other improprieties.

On Friday, the other person invited into the closed session was former Ethics Commissioner Billy G. Mills, who had locked horns often with Bycel.

Karen Rotschafer Sage, the mayor's legal counsel, denied speculation from some of Bycel's supporters that Riordan wanted Bycel out. She bolstered De la Rocha's statement that Riordan provided "no direction" to commissioners on the Bycel matter.

"The mayor is sure that today's decision was the result of responsible, thoughtful research and dialogue," Sage said.

Bycel was chosen as the Ethics Commission's first executive director from a field of 100 candidates after the agency's top choice for the job turned it down because the then-starting salary of $76,000 was too low. Bycel now makes $103,000 a year.

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Under his tenure, the commission has built a reputation as a tough, pioneering ethics enforcer that has been widely watched around the nation.

With a full-time staff of 16 and an annual budget of $1.1 million, the commission has uncovered wide-ranging laundering of campaign funds in local elections. Evergreen America Corp., a shipping company with connections to former City Councilman Art Snyder, was fined a record $895,000 in 1993 for campaign money laundering violations after a probe by the city commission and the FPPC. Snyder was indicted earlier this year on charges of making illegal contributions.

The commission found evidence of an employee in the city attorney's office doing campaign work with public resources, and it has warned elected officials when it believes they are spending contributions improperly and advises them on ways to avoid conflicts of interest.

Voters approved forming the commission and its development of a comprehensive anti-corruption ordinance in response to scandals that occurred toward the end of then-Mayor Bradley's 20-year tenure.

A series of news reports detailed questionable dealings in which friends of Bradley received lucrative city contracts. One, Juanita St. John, was convicted of taking public funds for her personal use. Bradley became the center of a furor when it was revealed he had ordered the city treasurer to renew city deposits with a bank that paid Bradley as a consultant.

Before taking the commission job, Bycel was dean of the Santa Barbara-Ventura College of Law. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer and a Democratic Party activist.

Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.

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