Carmen Trutanich was being interviewed at the start of his fifth full week as Los Angeles city attorney when the door of his eighth-floor office at City Hall East swung open.
A deputy stepped in to deliver the news of his administration’s first win: dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a 19-month-old girl killed when police stormed a South L.A. auto shop. They had returned fire on her father, who was holding the child in his arms.
It was a delicate matter, but Trutanich’s first reaction was to show pride in his team’s work. He hugged and high-fived his deputies, offering one of them a cigar from a wooden box at the back of his office. A Times photographer captured the scene.
A more seasoned elected official might have tempered his response in front of two journalists. But Trutanich likes to refer to himself as a “dude” and “not a politician.”
Over the next few minutes of the interview -- as his chief deputy, William Carter, gently interrupted at least three times to note how emotional the child’s death was -- Trutanich alternated between his sadness as a father and indignation that the family had sued police, who he said followed procedure and tried to rescue the child.
“Bottom line is,” the city attorney said rapping his knuckles on his desk, “what a great day for L.A.”
“Sad for the family,” Carter interjected.
“Sad for the family,” Trutanich echoed. “But you know, you know what, it’s not. L.A. should have never been sued, period.”
Carter spoke up again: “Well, it’s sad for the child’s -- “
“Well, I can’t do anything about that. That’s history,” Trutanich said, cutting in. “But you know my job is doing the city’s work. We did our job.”
The new city attorney rode into office July 1 with a steely promise to be Los Angeles’ ethical and fiscal watchdog, and the wrongful death suit could have cost the city millions of dollars. But when the photo of Trutanich’s high five was posted online, his staff feared, it would put him in a bad light in what one council member described as a “tumultuous” first month.
Charting an assertive course that has unsettled more than a few city officials, Trutanich has questioned routine police procedures, halted all ongoing legal agreements pending his review and threatened planning commissioners after they rejected his advice.
Although his predecessor, Rocky Delgadillo, rarely appeared in council chambers, Trutanich has already shown up twice -- dropping the vague bombshell on his second visit that his investigation into money that the city spent to assist the Michael Jackson memorial had “taken an unanticipated turn that raises both civil and criminal aspects.”
And both the current and former city controller have criticized Trutanich for not acting more quickly on his campaign pledge to end Delgadillo’s lawsuit to block an audit of the city attorney’s worker’s compensation program. Former Controller Laura Chick, who supported Trutanich, called him a demagogue and a liar on Doug McIntyre’s radio show on KABC-AM (790).
At the same time, Trutanich has won praise for his sometimes innovative approach -- as when he called in a retired judge to mediate a dispute over the L.A. Marathon -- and for digging into the work of transforming the city attorney’s office into a respected law firm.
He carts home briefing books on the city’s billboard problems and the explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries and is developing a curriculum for a training academy for his lawyers.
At his first executive management board meeting, he told his staff anyone who mentioned politics would “not be here next week.” In the evenings, Trutanich has sometimes walked the three floors of the office to greet his staff and says he wants everyone “to have a sense of belonging so that we can get our job done.” Last weekend, he hosted hundreds of his employees at a barbecue on the picnic grounds of the L.A. Police Academy and took a turn in the dunking booth.
Shelley Smith, president of the Los Angeles City Attorneys Assn., a union that represents some 500 rank-and-file city attorneys, said career lawyers were pleased by Trutanich’s move to elevate two respected office veterans to head the criminal and civil divisions. Others have appreciated Trutanich’s laudatory e-mails thanking attorneys and support staff for their work.
“There is an optimism that, irrespective of the budget crisis and the resource constraints that all of us will have to work with, that the new city attorney will be working to make sure it’s a terrific professional place to be,” Smith said.
Chief deputy Carter noted that “any manager of a large law firm needs to get actively involved in how that firm is being operated on a day-to-day basis.
“He’s not just sitting in the driver’s seat, he’s gotten out, opened up the hood and reached into the engine of this office -- [asking] what does this do? How do we need to fix it and make it better?” Carter said.
Trutanich has taken a particular interest in Los Angeles Police Department operations. To the surprise of top LAPD officials, he showed up recently for a late-night roll call of more than 100 officers, who were setting out to conduct bar checks, and questioned whether they needed search warrants. Officers were sent home that night. Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said the department disagreed with Trutanich’s legal opinion and conducted the operation a week later without warrants -- as it has for 30 years.
“We appreciate the advice that was offered, but based on our experience and our understanding of the protocols,” said LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, the department “decided to move forward as we always have” with the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Citing attorney-client privilege, Trutanich declined to discuss his advice that night but said his goal “is to up the caliber of lawyering in the city attorney’s office.”
One example of his attempts to halt ongoing legal agreements was a letter to the Planning Commission asking it to delay a decision about Convention Center billboards while he studied the matter. The commission rejected his request.
In a follow-up missive that Councilman Bernard C. Parks described as a letter one might write on a computer and delete when “you felt better,” Trutanich warned there were “limits to the discretion and governmental immunities” commissioners enjoyed as public officials. Trutanich added he would not hesitate to act if they appeared to be “aiding and abetting unlawful conduct despite my contrary advice.”
Planning Commission President William Roschen immediately requested a meeting to stress the panel’s reliance on the city attorney’s advice and assure Trutanich that commissioners meant no discourtesy. Roschen told Trutanich that commissioners want a relationship “that we have comfort and trust in” but added that he needed “to get past the tone of the letter to see if we can do that with you.”
Another city commissioner, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, called the letter “outrageous” and questioned who would volunteer for commission posts when the lawyer who is “supposed to defend you publicly chastised you.”
Less than two weeks later, Trutanich startled a number of council members when he appeared in chambers before a line of television cameras to announce he had unearthed “criminal aspects” in his investigation into the city’s spending on the Jackson memorial.
After Trutanich refused to elaborate -- even in a closed session -- Councilman Greig Smith said members “counseled him that he should be careful what he says in public.”
Council President Eric Garcetti, however, said it was refreshing that the city attorney “is not above” meeting with them personally in council chambers. “I don’t know when the last time is that happened,” he said.
Trutanich said he was trying to encourage the public to contact his office with any information about the events surrounding Michael Jackson’s memorial.
“I just wanted to find out what was going on,” Trutanich said. “We were running into some walls.”
In the meantime, Trutanich said, he is trying to professionalize the office -- requiring his staff, for example, to respond to requests for legal opinions within three days -- and to shape it into an entity “feared by people who are going to sue the city of Los Angeles.”
He said he wants them to know “they’re taking on a real live, heart-beating, professional law office that’s going to fight like hell.” Trutanich amplified that point by mentioning one of his favorite terms: “the porcupine defense. You may eat me, but I ain’t gonna taste good going down.”