Roosevelt F. Dorn, who earned acclaim and criticism as a juvenile court judge and was an equally polarizing figure in more than a decade as Inglewood mayor, pleaded guilty Monday to a public corruption charge.
The plea ends a political career that saw significant drops in crime, as well as Inglewood’s attempt to bounce back from the loss of the Lakers and the Kings. But while supporters hailed Dorn’s leadership, critics said he ran the city as a fiefdom.
Dorn, who stepped down Sunday evening, is barred from holding public office for the rest of his life as part of his guilty plea to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge. He was also placed on probation for two years and fined $1,000. Dorn entered his plea as prospective jurors were set to be called for trial in connection with his acceptance of a $500,000 loan through a city housing program.
As a judge, Dorn won praise for his tough-love approach toward young offenders. But others viewed him as imperious, accusing him of stretching the law to fit his personal mission. The 74-year-old jurist displayed the same zeal in trying to reverse the slide of a city mired in debt and shedding retail businesses. He developed a reputation for doing things his own way.
Prosecutors alleged that Dorn betrayed his constituents in a scheme that allowed him to benefit from a low-interest city loan program he helped extend to elected officials.
“He got greedy,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman. “He used every tool in his considerable arsenal as a lawyer and former judge to convince people that he was entitled to this public money.”
During Monday’s hearing, Dorn told the court that he acted only after the Inglewood city attorney advised him that the loan was legal. He said he took a pay cut as a judge to run for mayor in 1997 and that he was never motivated by money.
“I left the bench . . . in order to try to save my city,” he said, according to a court transcript.
Supporters and critics expressed shock at Dorn’s decision to drop his high-profile legal fight against the charges.
City Councilman Daniel Tabor, who sometimes clashed with the mayor, said the conviction was an “embarrassment” for the city.
“We’re not talking about someone working the line staff; we’re talking about the mayor,” Tabor said.
But others defended Dorn’s record as mayor. William Bishop, a pastor at The Way The Church, said he had voted for Dorn because of his integrity.
“He was an honest man . . . and he was interested in the success of the community,” Bishop said.
The criminal case against Dorn revolved around a city loan program originally intended to help Inglewood administrators afford to live in the city. In June 2004, Dorn voted with the majority of the City Council to extend the program to elected officials. Five months later, he obtained a 30-year loan with a variable interest rate of 2.39%, far less than the market rate.
He allegedly used half the funds to pay off his mortgage on his longtime Inglewood home and put the other half in his bank account.
The loan became an issue during his election for a third term, and he repaid the money in October 2006.
In court on Monday, Dorn told the judge he would never have taken the loan had he known he was acting illegally.
“What occurred had nothing to do with greed,” he said.
But prosecutors said Dorn’s excuse was a weak one given his storied legal background. They said he was responsible for initiating the proposal to extend the loan program to elected officials, a clear conflict of interest.
“Politicians are not supposed to be looking out for their self-interest,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Juliet Schmidt. “That money could have been used for a real public interest for the city.”
One of nine siblings born to a poor family in Checotah, Okla., Dorn has often recounted how he arrived in Los Angeles from the South’s cotton fields with $1.50 in his pocket.
He got a job as a deputy sheriff, working as a bailiff in the courts. The experience led him to study law, and he joined the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, rising to head the office’s criminal trial division.
In 1979, the registered Democrat became a municipal court judge and a year later was appointed to the Superior Court by then-Gov. Jerry Brown Jr.
Dorn won respect from parents for his no-nonsense approach, thundering in a baritone from the bench at youngsters who skipped school or violated probation. He kept juveniles on probation for longer than other judges and detained children who violated his orders to keep curfew and stay in school, even if they hadn’t committed crimes.
Some defense attorneys bristled at his autocratic style. And Dorn was accused of favoring certain private attorneys in his appointments -- an accusation he denied.
As a candidate for mayor more than 12 years ago, Dorn promised reform. Inglewood was $8 million in debt. Its storied sports teams -- the Lakers and Kings -- were preparing to move to downtown L.A. Businesses were fleeing, and residents were complaining about rampant crime.
In his three terms as mayor, crime has fallen dramatically, as it has in other major cities nationwide. Even critics credit Dorn with delivering on his pledge to make the city more attractive to retailers.
Describing the city as once “almost a ghost town” in his statement in court on Monday, Dorn said Inglewood is “a totally different city” today.
“You drive through it now and you’ll see a city that people are proud of,” he said. “You’ll see stores everywhere.”
But others noted that Dorn also leaves a council wrestling with fiscal issues and a police department under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department following a spate of unarmed shootings and allegations of excessive force.
With his criminal case pending, the mayor stepped down at a time when he was fast losing political support, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a former Inglewood resident and president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.
“The mayor really had no choice,” Hutchinson said. “There was really no other way out.”
Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.