Today is election day, a red-letter day for the triumph of democracy.
Yesterday, Monday, was a red-letter day for something -- I'm not sure it was a triumph of democracy, but it was sure a triumph of bureaucracy. On Monday, the law caught in its net people who allegedly tried to get away with misbehaving on the public dime, and the law had to let slip through its net people who did get away with misbehaving on the public dime.
Monday, 7 a.m. -- the bunny-slipper bust. The Los Angeles County's D.A.'s office, bearing grand jury indictments, nabs two Compton City Council members and the city manager in their homes for alleged misuse of government credit cards. It takes a while to find the other two -- another council member and Compton's ever-entertaining ex-mayor, Omar Bradley. (I was disappointed in Bradley; I'd have bet my milk money that he would at least pull a flamboyant O.J.-style slow-speed freeway chase while he was phoning Warren Wilson to negotiate his surrender.)
Monday, 10 a.m. -- the Belmont investigation goes bust. The same D.A.'s office, bearing a 220-page report with three appendices, closes the book on the most magnificent boondoggle in recent civic memory: the $175-million Belmont Learning Complex, from which the only thing we've learned is not to let the inmates run the asylum's checkbook. This is a school built atop a methane bonanza -- for prom night, Belmont students could have stuck pipes in the ground and lighted their own tiki torches.
Result? Instead of seeing some suits-and-ties doing a perp walk on Belmont, we get a spiral-bound set of go-and-sin-no-more advice, most of which is evidently already being followed. (The only two people left on the school board from the Belmont fiasco voted against it.)
It seems that Belmont's transgressions were of omission, not commission, egregious but not felonious. The phrases pop out of the report: "Will not support prosecution ... insufficient evidence ... no direct evidence."
I asked D.A. Steve Cooley whether he was disappointed that he couldn't haul in someone by the collar. After all, Belmont was one of the arrows he stuck into his quiver to bring down his predecessor, Gil Garcetti. People expected a Cooley administration to blow the lid off the gaseous, flammable Belmont.
"Would I have liked to haul someone in by the collar? Absolutely, yes ... that would have been a happy day." Instead he found himself having to put a coat of gloss on this "work product" which "will benefit the public in general, the schoolchildren of Los Angeles and the LAUSD for years to come."
And for years to come, people are going to remember Belmont and think twice before punching out a chad in favor of a school bond issue; trust me, the cost of Belmont will be far bigger than $175 mil.
To sum up: We do not have so much as a parking ticket to show for Belmont.
In fact, the only person who's ever come close to going to jail in this dazzling civic cock-up was (and this will be on the test) ... one of the D.A.'s own prosecutors, David Eng, called to account by his own bosses for supposedly accessing a law enforcement computer for personal use. The state attorney general dropped the charges.
So, was Belmont a case of stupidity or cupidity? If they weren't corrupt, then they were clueless, which in a way is worse. At least to be corrupt, you have to be clever, right?
Which brings us to the Compton Five.
Council member Amen Rahh -- DOCTOR Rahh, please, from the honorary PhD bestowed on him by a small Compton acupuncture school -- is, like the others, facing accusations of using a city credit card for personal stuff, like emergency dental work, and not fully repaying it. The city manager supposedly used his to take a children's basketball team to Florida.
Cooley's public corruption task force has been sweeping through the little cities of southeast L.A. County like Sherman to the sea: Huntington Park, South Gate, Bell Gardens, Compton. South Gate's treasurer and three council members were recalled in January, even though the treasurer beat the rap on making terrorist threats.
Compared with Belmont-scale outrages, these cases can be easier prosecutorial pickings, just as a car thief (car's gone, guy's fingerprints are on the steering wheel) is easier to convict than a complex, high-flying white-collar securities-fraud shyster.
Here is where Cooley runs the white-water political rapids. He campaigned on the mishandling of the Belmont matter; now Belmont is un-prosecutable. He campaigned on the mishandling of the Rampart police corruption case. Now, in his own words, he's "closed the book" on Rampart. He campaigned on Garcetti being overly considerate of the rich and powerful. Now two of his prosecutors say a Cooley deputy derailed a perjury and conspiracy investigation of the rich and powerful Newhall Land company, put in new prosecutors, filed a single misdemeanor -- and even dropped that.
The risk is that, like Garcetti, Cooley too might one day find himself tagged as losing big ones -- or letting them get away.
Something else happened Monday of interest to the D.A.'s office, which has charged several men of the cloth, past and present, with alleged sexual transgressions. This paper reported that Cardinal Roger Mahony has decided he won't be handing over all those related documents after all. Cooley has said he will use everything he's got -- "criminal investigations, subpoenas and the grand jury" -- to get to the heart of this "sad and disheartening scandal," that no one, not even "men of God or the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is above the law."
Now you're talking. Book 'em, Steve-o.