Settling a burgeoning conflict-of-interest flap, former USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said Monday that he has agreed to leave a blue-ribbon panel investigating the Los Angeles Police Department's handling of the Rampart corruption scandal.
Chemerinsky, a constitutional law scholar, signed on a few weeks ago to serve as a pro bono expert for the plaintiffs in 12 federal lawsuits stemming from the scandal, in which anti-gang officers from the Rampart division were accused of beating and framing suspects and covering up illegal shootings.
When the Los Angeles city attorney's office learned last week of Chemerinsky's intention to appear as an expert witness, it objected, citing a conflict-of-interest clause in an agreement that Chemerinsky had signed when he was named to the panel last year.
The nine-member Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel, which is headed by civil rights attorney Connie Rice, was created by the civilian Police Commission to determine whether the department had adequately investigated itself after the Rampart abuses came to light in 1999.
Under terms of its mandate, the panel was authorized to examine confidential police records, including officer personnel files.
To protect the city's legal interests, the commission insisted that panel members "shall not be involved in any claims or lawsuits against the city" without city consent.
Chemerinsky, who recently joined the faculty at Duke Law School, said he telephoned Rice on Sunday and agreed to withdraw from the panel, calling it the "easiest solution."
He said he thought that the prohibition applied only to his serving as an attorney for people suing the city, not for any expert-witness work.
He said he would not have accepted appointment to the panel if he thought that it would prevent him from speaking his mind on an important public issue.
He chalked up the dispute to an "obvious misunderstanding or miscommunication."
After learning of his decision, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo issued a statement Monday saying that he now "sees nothing that would prohibit Professor Chemerinsky's participation in the Rampart litigation."
The dozen cases in which Chemerinsky has agreed to testify were filed in Los Angeles federal court by civil rights attorney Stephen Yagman. The first case is scheduled for trial in November.
In a seven-page court declaration dated July 31, Chemerinsky said he was prepared to testify that at least as far back as 1983, Los Angeles mayors, City Council members, police chiefs and other department officials had turned a blind eye to police misconduct.
Chemerinsky described a pattern of alleged misconduct by LAPD officers and department brass, ranging from a deeply embedded code of silence to the failure to investigate citizen complaints. Though the need for drastic reform has been obvious for years, he said, "there has been no effective, corrective action to rectify this situation."
A longtime civil liberties advocate, the 51-year-old Chemerinsky has spoken out frequently about the Rampart case. After the scandal erupted, he was enlisted by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the police officers' union, to examine the roots of the problem. His 154-page report, which was endorsed by the police union and civil rights lawyers alike, recommended sweeping reforms to prosecute rogue officers and protect those who report misconduct.
Chemerinsky now is chairman of a blue-ribbon committee appointed by Mayor James K. Hahn to review city contracting practices. He also was chairman of the elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission from 1997 to 1999.
A decade ago, he helped write a constitution for the former Soviet republic of Belarus.