Saying he was accused of leaking to TMZ.com, fired L.A. County Superior Court spokesman fires back
Through the made-for-tabloid legal dramas of Paris, Britney, Rihanna and Lindsay, Allan Parachini, the spokesman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court, was a ubiquitous figure, his mop of white hair bobbing above a sea of cameras as he explained the latest procedural twists on the courthouse steps.
But this week, Parachini was fired from the post he had held for eight years based on what he says are false accusations that he leaked information to the chief chronicler of celebrity scandal, TMZ.com.
In his only public comments since being placed on administrative leave last month, Parachini denied any inappropriate relationship with the gossip site and said the real reason for his termination was a conflict over access of the old media — specifically newspaper reporters — to bureaucratic data that would make most TMZ readers yawn.
Parachini said that in recent months, he repeatedly clashed with court administrators who wanted to prevent or delay the release of employee salary information, judicial spending reports and a contract that he believed were public information.
“The court as an institution doesn’t see itself as having an obligation to be an open institution of government as pertains to its fiscal and business operations,” Parachini said.
Court officials, including Executive Officer John A. Clarke, and Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy, declined to comment on his allegations. A spokeswoman confirmed that Parachini was no longer employed by the court but refused to respond to his charges.
“I can’t get into that. We don’t comment on personnel matters,” said Mary Hearn, acting director of the court public information office.
Parachini, a former journalist who worked for The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union before taking the job as the court’s public face, said he was speaking out because attempts to negotiate a severance package had fallen through and he was troubled by rumors widespread in media and local government circles that he had been caught taking bribes from TMZ. He volunteered to turn over financial records to law enforcement and said they would show that his only income was the $138,000 salary he received from the court.
TMZ became the dominant source of celebrity legal news during Parachini’s tenure, but whispers about collusion grew loud in 2008, when he hired Vania Stuelp, a former TMZ reporter, as his deputy. Stuelp returned to TMZ earlier this year after losing her court job in a round of budget-related layoffs.
“From the beginning, a lot of people in the media thought Vania was a TMZ plant,” Parachini said.
A publicist for TMZ said neither Stuelp nor the site’s founder, Harvey Levin, would comment.
Parachini said that in an Oct. 25 meeting, Clarke told him administrators had lost confidence in him because of a perception that he was passing privileged materials to TMZ. He said he had asked what he was accused of leaking and when. Clarke did not provide specifics, but said Parachini talked too frequently to Levin.
“I responded, ‘Guilty as charged. I talk to a lot of reporters on the phone. That’s my job,’” Parachini said.
He said he refused to sign a letter of resignation at the meeting and hired a lawyer who began trying to work out a severance agreement. On Monday, the court mailed him a letter terminating him, he said.
Parachini called the TMZ allegations “a pretext” to cover increasingly contentious disputes between judges and court administrators on one side and him on the other over how to respond to a series of requests for information submitted by reporters from The Times and another newspaper outlet, the Bay Area News Group.
He said that this fall when a Times reporter asked for a copy of the Sheriff’s Department contract with the court — something Parachini said was clearly public information — Clarke and another administrator worried aloud about “political sensitivities” in releasing the material. He said he was instructed to stall by asking the reporter to submit questions in writing and later to find out if the reporter “wanted to screw us.”
“I said even if we knew he wanted to screw us — whatever that means — I don’t see how we have justification to withhold that information,” he said. Ultimately, the reporter got the contract.
At around the same time, two other Times reporters sought copies of judges’ expense reports. Parachini said “the first response [of court administrators] was to find a pretext to withhold that as long as possible, knowing full well that the judges would be up in arms.”
He said that he insisted that the material had to be turned over, but administrators ordered that it be released “in dribs and drabs” beginning with departmental summaries that did not comply with the reporters’ requests.
At the same time, the Bay Area News Group was seeking salary information for every employee in the court system to complete an online database of state government and university employees. Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter, said he e-mailed the same request to every county court system in late July with detailed instructions about how to provide the material.
While other courts handed over the information, L.A. County’s courts initially did not respond and later sent him a letter saying they did not accept e-mailed requests, Peele said. “My initial reaction…was, ‘Come on, everybody else can do this by e-mail, why can’t you? This is 2010,’” he said.
Peele said he mailed in a request, but a court official told him it was never received. He sent a second one but has still not received the data.
Parachini said that in all three cases, the data being held back did not appear to contain anything damaging. He said there were “no fat cats” on the court payroll and the judges’ expense forms showed “nothing to be ashamed of.”
“There’s an unfortunately pervasive belief among judges and the courts as an institution that media organizations have inherent ill intent toward the court and are hoping to damage it,” he said.
Parachini believes he also ran afoul of his bosses by speaking out in favor of camera access in legal proceedings. He gave an interview to TRU TV, formerly Court TV, for a video presentation in favor of cameras in the courtroom to be played at an August convention of court public information officers. Parachini told the network that parties involved in cases quickly forgot about the presence of cameras. The same month, a report by L.A. judges found that 94.4% of bench officers opposed a state proposal making it easier for media organizations to get cameras in courtrooms.
He said that judges began asking, “Are you the media’s person with the court or the court’s person with the media?”
“My answer was both,” he said.