Mike Feuer’s office is dogged by DWP corruption scandal. Will voters care?
Stumping around Los Angeles in his campaign for mayor, Mike Feuer likes to tell voters how his father, a lifelong educator and Nazi prisoner of war camp survivor, inspired his family’s devotion to public service. Feuer recalls his years working for the poor and elderly at a public interest law firm, Bet Tzedek.
And the two-term city attorney of Los Angeles says those values have been reflected in his career: in the $185-million settlement he helped extract from Wells Fargo after the bank created as many as 2.1 million unauthorized customer accounts, and in a 2017 American Bar Assn. honor, praising his office for “extraordinary achievements in consumer protection, gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform.”
But Feuer’s do-gooder profile took a gut punch when federal investigators raided the city attorney’s office in 2019 in a case that began with revelations that the city‘s Department of Water and Power overcharged customers, sometimes by huge amounts.
Two and a half years later, as the mayor’s race pushes its way to center stage, the scandal and a scheme to settle a lawsuit over ratepayers’ complaints continue to rumble in the wings.
Earlier this month came the news that Thomas Peters, whom Feuer made head of his office’s civil litigation section, would plead guilty to abetting extortion. Last week, an outside attorney filed a complaint asking the city’s Ethics Commission to investigate Feuer and others over the DWP debacle. The city attorney’s representatives responded that the complaint was “a desperate attempt by a confessed criminal to divert attention from his own misconduct.”
After months of visiting neighborhoods around L.A., where Feuer’s campaign said no one raised the DWP scandal, the new year has seen it begin to edge into the campaign.
The good news for the city attorney is that he has not been named in an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office. And the DWP morass remained far less central for dozens of voters who have met with Feuer than other issues — particularly homelessness, an increase in violent crime and the spiraling price of housing in L.A.
“He’s trying to make lemonade out of a lemon. And he has done fine so far,” said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles. “But let’s be clear, it’s a lemon. It is a problem.”
Feuer, 63, has become a recognizable figure to many Angelenos over a career that includes two terms on the City Council, six years in the state Assembly and two terms as city attorney.
His public standing appeared somewhat resilient before the latest news, with his favorability rating in August of 31% second among the major candidates then pondering a run for mayor, behind only U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who was viewed favorably by 42% of those surveyed.
But the U.S. attorney’s office continues to investigate the DWP mess. And the scope of the review presents a challenge for Feuer.
Federal authorities have charged that attorneys working for the city attorney’s office helped arrange outside legal representation for overcharged DWP customers in order to quickly reach a settlement in a class-action lawsuit that was favorable to the city.
In nine campaign appearances over the last two weekends, speaking to more than 100 people in small gatherings in city parks and in a debate before several dozen homeowner activists, Feuer was asked to address the DWP debacle just twice.
Speaking to about two dozen people in Glen Alla Park in the Westside community of Del Rey on Jan. 22, a voter asked the candidate if he personally was a target of the investigation.
“I own responsibility when there is a problem in my office,” Feuer said, while not responding directly to the query about subjects of the probe. He later told a reporter via text that he “pledged to cooperate fully with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and can’t discuss its investigation,” adding: “I can certainly say that I’ve always acted completely appropriately in this and every case.”
Feuer said he deserved credit for actions his office took in 2019: hiring an outside attorney to conduct an ethics review in the wake of the scandal and imposing more stringent controls on contracts with outside law firms, along with stronger oversight of the lawyers in those firms.
He told the Del Rey gathering: “I’m focused on moving our city forward. I’m focused on making sure every fact comes down. I’m focused on cooperating to the fullest extent I can.” Feuer said that challenges confront all political leaders, adding, “The question is, how do you handle it, when that kind of a challenge arises. And I’ve handled this decisively, transparently.”
In July, Feuer said he’d seen no evidence that Peters and another former top assistant “failed to act with integrity” in the DWP matter. When Peters agreed to plead guilty this month, Feuer said he was “furious and disappointed beyond words” at the breach of trust.
The Times interviewed 15 people who came to those gatherings undecided and almost all remained so afterward, saying they were open to Feuer but also to other candidates. None said the DWP scandal, as it has been outlined so far, should disqualify him
Christina Lopez of Westchester said she left the Del Rey meeting leaning toward voting for Feuer.
“Maybe he should have been aware [of the DWP problem] sooner. But these things can creep up on you. And he has 1,000 employees,” said Lopez, a retired public school teacher. “So I forgive this one indiscretion. But if it happens more than once, then there may be a lack of oversight. He’ll have something to answer for.”
In a mayoral debate held a week earlier via videoconference by Westside homeowners groups (but only made public later on YouTube) Feuer’s rivals signaled much greater skepticism.
“It starts at the top. When your own deputies are breaking the law, you need to be held accountable,” said City Councilman Joe Buscaino. Councilman Kevin de León said: “I think you can’t be both a paragon of virtue [and] at the same time have a cesspool of corruption in the office. … I think that’s why people are tired of the status quo.”
Bass said: “I think whoever’s in charge is responsible. But I’m not going to take the opportunity to take a swipe at the city attorney.”
The mayoral candidates had been asked about the DWP situation by Mike Eveloff, one of the debate moderators and president of the Friends of West L.A. community group. He called the DWP scandal “the elephant in the room.”
In a later interview, Eveloff called the topic “a serious problem for Mike Feuer.”
Guerra said his sense — after watching the top six candidates when they met in separate class sessions with about 30 of his students — is that voters will be more concerned with solving the homelessness problem, creating housing and quelling an uptick in gun violence than with the complex actions of the city attorney’s office in the DWP case.
“I don’t think voters want to focus on this over all those other issues,” Guerra said. “And for anyone who brings it up as one of his opponents, I think it will reflect almost as badly on them as on Feuer.”
Feuer’s pitch to voters has been that he is the most experienced candidate in the race, given four terms in City Hall and his time in the state Assembly, making him better prepared “from Day One” to solve the city’s biggest problems.
From Mar Vista to West Hills, the issues of homelessness and public safety came up again and again.
Feuer ticked off a series of changes he would make to reduce the number of people living on the streets: declaring a “state of emergency” to increase his powers; creating a revolving equity fund for more housing construction; providing homeless outreach workers with portable computers to instantly access information on available units; knocking down bureaucratic barriers to getting unhoused people into psychiatric treatment; and building more temporary housing, to go with the permanent apartments funded by 2016’s Proposition HHH.
Feuer said he understood people’s frustration. He said it would be “incredibly inhumane” to force people off the streets without alternatives. “But if we’ve offered you housing and services, there’s a date by which you can’t be living there on the street anymore,” he said. Feuer did not offer a deadline in that scenario, but said it should be less than “months later.”
On public safety, Feuer told voters he wants to get away from the “false dichotomy” that a city leader must either support the police, or advocate for reform. The city attorney called last year for restoring the Los Angeles Police Department, which declined to about 9,471 officers, to its previous staffing of 10,000.
“Increasing the force and reforming LAPD can go hand in hand. They are not mutually exclusive,” Feuer said. He said there had to be “zero tolerance” for excessive force and called for increased police training in deescalating confrontations. He also said he would expand the Community Safety Partnership, a program that emphasizes police engagement with residents in public housing developments over confrontation and arrests.
Feuer’s “Every Neighborhood, Any Question” tour is due to continue at parks around Los Angeles virtually every weekend through May. Attendance has been mixed. More than 100 showed up in Studio City. Just four voters came to speak to Feuer at Woodbine Park in Palms on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
Like many who attended the sessions, screenwriter Peter Iliff said after a meeting at Reynier Park near Robertson Boulevard that he found Feuer intelligent, well-informed and compassionate.
“I didn’t see anything I didn’t like,” said Iliff . “I wonder if he is dynamic enough. I’m looking forward to learning more about him and whether he has the swagger to get it done.”
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