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End of a stall after a crash

Times Staff Writer

After days of dodging questions, Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo acknowledged Monday that his wife was driving his city-owned SUV with a suspended license when it was damaged in a 2004 accident and later repaired at taxpayer expense.

At a City Hall news conference, Delgadillo said he should have come forward immediately last week when a Times report raised questions about the accident. But, he said, he stalled because he was trying to protect his family from the “public eye.” He characterized his conduct as a breach of “the public trust.”

“I mishandled the situation, and I apologize,” he said. “I take full responsibility.”

But even after his news conference, Delgadillo’s staff worked into the evening to correct misstatements that the city attorney had made.

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Among the main clarifications:

* Despite initially denying that he drove without the automobile insurance required of all California drivers, Delgadillo actually was an uninsured motorist from June 2005 to July 2006.

* And, contrary to his assertion that his wife was insured when she left the scene of a separate accident in 2004 involving the couple’s jointly registered personal car, she was, in fact, also uninsured.

“Due to the confusing nature of the facts in this situation, I misspoke today,” Delgadillo said in a statement released after meeting with reporters.

The revelations about the Delgadillos’ driving records and use of city property came more than a week after the city attorney had refused to discuss the accident involving his city-owned GMC Yukon.

At the news conference, Delgadillo said he had been attending the Democratic National Convention in Boston when his wife used his SUV to go see her doctor because their personal car had broken down. He said she damaged the rear end backing the SUV into a pole in the parking lot at her doctor’s office. He would not say where the accident occurred but that it was not at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as one Times source had stated. When Delgadillo returned from his Boston trip, he said, he turned the vehicle in to the city garage.

Records show that the repair was estimated to cost $2,120. Delgadillo, however, provided a document that stated that the cost actually amounted to $1,222. He said he wrote a personal check Monday to reimburse the city for the expense.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

By allowing his wife, Michelle, to drive his city vehicle -- something he said he had permitted on other occasions -- Delgadillo may have violated rules that govern the use of city-owned vehicles. Although city workers are generally prohibited from allowing family members to drive city cars for personal uses, it is unclear whether the rules apply to elected officials, a Delgadillo spokesman said.

At the time of the accident involving the Yukon, Delgadillo acknowledged that his wife’s driver’s license had been suspended because she lacked proof of insurance. That suspension occurred after Michelle Delgadillo, who was driving their personal car, left the scene of a separate accident earlier that year.

Delgadillo said his wife did not exchange information with the other motorist because she believed that no damage had occurred. However, since she was uninsured at the time, she had no information to exchange. The other driver, however, filed an accident report, which resulted in Michelle Delgadillo’s license suspension.

For more than two years, she drove without a valid license but did not realize it, the city attorney said, until she tried to get a new one after her purse had been stolen. She was an uninsured motorist for about two years, while the city attorney was uninsured for a little more than one year, a spokesman said. (Delgadillo was covered when driving the city vehicle because the city is self-insured. But that protection did not apply to the family car.)

“I apologize and take full responsibility for the lapse in my personal insurance,” Delgadillo said in a statement released after his news conference.

Delgadillo told reporters that he was “embarrassed” by the situation involving his wife.

Some political observers said Delgadillo’s possible misconduct was made worse by his initial refusal to address the matter publicly. Government accountability advocates demanded that Delgadillo disclose the information about the accident because it involved the expenditure of city funds.

“It’s a matter of public concern,” said Los Angeles City Ethics Commissioner Bill Boyarsky, a former city editor with The Times. “When you’re given a city car, you and you alone should drive it.... If it gets in an accident it should be reported promptly, fully and truthfully. The city attorney, in particular, has to be above any question.”

Kris Vosburgh, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Assn., said he was pleased that Delgadillo was repaying the city for the repair’s cost.

“It’s about time,” he said. “Being in politics is all about shepherding the people’s money. Even small amounts are very symbolic to the public. We all want to see it used wisely. If city leaders think they are above the law or requirements, that engenders a lot of resentment.”

Delgadillo said he would cooperate with any investigations into his conduct. It is unclear if any public oversight agency, such as the Ethics Commission or city controller’s office, would launch a probe.

Delgadillo’s admissions Monday were the latest in a string of political embarrassments. Last week, he was fined $11,450 by the Ethics Commission for 30 counts of violating campaign finance laws. Also last week, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley publicly complained that suspects who could have been charged with felonies were charged by Delgadillo with misdemeanors.

In a statement late Monday, Cooley said that recent news reports “suggesting improper conduct” by Delgadillo “justifiably raise concerns.” But because Delgadillo is considering running to unseat Cooley next year, the prosecutor said, any comments by him would be “inappropriate and any action could be seen as a conflict.”

The attention on Delgadillo’s wife followed statements that he made in the Paris Hilton case. Delgadillo had told the judge that Hilton should spend more time in jail for driving with a suspended license and violating her probation on alcohol-related reckless driving charges. Later that same day, Delgadillo acknowledged in response to inquiries from reporters that his wife had been ticketed for failing to obey a right-turn-only sign while driving her personal car with a suspended license in 2005.

Even before the couple married, Michelle Delgadillo had a troubled driving record. In a complaint filed in 1998, Michelle Namen, not yet married to Delgadillo, drove with a suspended driver’s license and without proof of insurance.

When she failed to appear for arraignment in September 1998, a bench warrant was issued in the amount of $2,000, court records show. It was not clear from the court files whether the $2,000 had been paid and the warrant canceled.

Delgadillo said he believed that the warrant had been withdrawn.

matt.lait@latimes.com


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