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Delgadillo trips up on fast track

Times Staff Writer

Almost from the start, Rocky Delgadillo’s trajectory through life has resembled that of something fired from a cannon.

He went from being a star athlete and student body president at Franklin High School in Highland Park to Harvard.

Then came law school at Columbia, followed by a stint at a prestigious L.A. law firm where the firm’s chairman, Warren Christopher, became his mentor. With Christopher’s help, Delgadillo made the transition into politics and, in 2001, won the race for Los Angeles city attorney, becoming the first Latino elected to citywide office in more than three decades.

Even his failed campaign for California attorney general last year had some pundits saying it had increased his statewide name recognition and better positioned him for pursuit of higher office in the future.

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Nothing, it seemed, could slow Delgadillo down.

Until now.

Over the last several days, the city’s top prosecutor has been forced to make a series of embarrassing admissions about his own conduct and that of his wife, Michelle.

After dodging questions for days, Delgadillo acknowledged that she was driving his city-owned GMC Yukon with a suspended license when it was damaged in an accident and later repaired at city expense in 2004. He has since apologized and, after the incident surfaced publicly, repaid the $1,222 bill.

Delgadillo also acknowledged -- after first denying it -- that he himself had driven the couple’s personal sport utility vehicle without insurance for more than a year.

On Wednesday, in response to questions from The Times, he confirmed that he had enlisted members of his staff to run personal errands and baby-sit his children. The city Ethics Commission and the State Bar of California have begun inquiries related to Delgadillo’s alleged use of city resources for personal purposes.

The disclosures came on the heels of his being fined $11,450 for 30 counts of violating campaign finance laws, and an accusation by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley that Delgadillo had been filing misdemeanor charges against defendants who could have been charged as felons, to keep the cases in the city attorney’s jurisdiction.

What the fallout -- politically or otherwise -- ultimately will be remains to be seen. There has been widespread speculation that Delgadillo, who will be forced by term limits from the city attorney post in 2009, is considering a run for Los Angeles County district attorney next year.

Delgadillo and his wife declined to be interviewed for this article.

Even some of his once-ardent backers did not exactly leap to his defense in the wake of the controversies.

“I remain Rocky’s friend,” Christopher, the former U.S. secretary of State and Delgadillo’s mentor at the O’Melveny and Myers law firm, said in a prepared statement. “But since I have not been involved, I do not want to further complicate the situation by offering a comment.”

Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who tapped Delgadillo to be his deputy mayor for economic development in the mid-1990s, said he remained confident in his former aide’s ability to serve as city attorney. But he added, “Rocky gets an F-minus in damage control. Before you open your mouth, you’ve got to get all the facts.”

Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor who specializes in Los Angeles politics, said it was “the cumulative effect” of Delgadillo’s transgressions that poses the biggest problem.

“It makes you really question what was the city attorney thinking,” Sonenshein said. “Politically, I think there’s going to be some significant damage from this.”

Delgadillo, 46, was born July 15, 1960, the fourth of five children. He excelled in sports, and lettered in baseball, football, basketball and track at Franklin High. He also earned high marks and was elected class president as well as student body president.

At Harvard, he played football and later tried out for the NFL’s New York Giants, but didn’t make the team. (He subsequently claimed in campaign speeches and promotional materials that he went to Harvard on a football scholarship, was selected as an All American and played pro football. But those claims have since been modified or retracted.)

After graduating from Harvard, he returned to Los Angeles, where he briefly worked as a teacher and coach at his alma mater before being accepted to law school at Columbia University in New York. From there he again came back to Los Angeles to work as an attorney.

After the city’s riots in 1992, Delgadillo went to work for Rebuild L.A., a corporate-led nonprofit organization created to revitalize South Los Angeles and other neighborhoods damaged in the rioting. That burst of violence followed the first trial of the police officers involved in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.

From there, Delgadillo went to work for Riordan.

It was while working for the mayor that he met Michelle Namen, a young, attractive aide in the office of Councilman Joel Wachs. As the story goes, they first laid eyes on one another at Riordan’s inauguration on the steps of City Hall in July 1993.

“It was a warm summer day,” recalled former City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski. “Michelle noticed Rocky or Rocky noticed Michelle, and there was a spark.”

Former Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) said his wife, Gail, helped the two get together and that one of their first dates was baby-sitting the Koretzes’ daughter.

“Rocky was so good and so sweet with Rachel; that was one of the things that won Michelle’s heart early on,” Paul Koretz said.,

The two were married in Malibu in 1998, and have two sons, ages 3 and 6.

Michelle Delgadillo, 36, has declined to be interviewed by The Times about the accident involving the city SUV or a 1998 incident in which she was charged with driving on a suspended license, without insurance and in an unregistered vehicle. In that case, she had an outstanding bench warrant for years before pleading no contest to driving without a valid license last week after an article in The Times disclosed the warrant.

In a prepared statement, Michelle Delgadillo said simply that she was “very embarrassed” about her situation.

Rocky Delgadillo was propelled into the office of city attorney in 2001 based on strong support from Latino and black voters and money from then-Mayor Riordan and the business community. With his victory over then-Councilman Mike Feuer, he became the first minority to hold the post. He was reelected in 2005.

During his tenure, he established what has become a very popular Neighborhood Prosecutors Program to combat “quality of life” crimes throughout the city. He also placed an emphasis on fighting gangs, quadrupling the number of gang injunctions in place from the time he took office. There are now 33 such injunctions covering 50 gangs, officials said.

Delgadillo boasts of a steep reduction in the amount the city has paid out in civil liability cases under his administration, which officials in his office said was down from $92 million in 2001 to an anticipated $34 million this year.

His time in office has not been without controversy, however, even before his current difficulties surfaced.

Perhaps the most consistent knock against him is that he supposedly spends too much time cultivating his own image and not enough tending to official duties.

In 2004, a survey by the union representing 480 deputy and assistant city attorneys found that 80% of those polled strongly agreed with the statement “The current city attorney administration places too much importance on generating favorable media coverage.”

A spokesman at the time brushed aside the complaint, saying Delgadillo was merely getting lawyers in his office the credit they deserved.

But the city attorney has said in the past that he welcomed constructive criticism.

“I won’t let you down,” he told a group of supporters at a pancake breakfast soon after his first election. “And if I ever do, I want you to call me and let me know. I want you to hold me accountable.”

In recent days, one city attorney staffer conceded, the phones have been ringing off the hook.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rocky Delgadillo

Party: Democratic

Occupation: Los Angeles city attorney

Age: 46

Residence: Windsor Village

Personal: Married; two children

Education: Bachelor’s degree, psychology and social relations, Harvard; juris doctorate, Columbia School of Law

Career highlights: Rebuild L.A. project manager, 1992-93; Los Angeles assistant deputy mayor, 1993-97; Los Angeles deputy mayor, 1997-2000; Los Angeles city attorney, 2001-present


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