Council candidates on L.A.’s Westside bash each other over their legal careers
An increasingly vitriolic battle to represent the Westside on the Los Angeles City Council roared to new levels of intensity Friday, as attorney Erin Darling charged that his opponent, lawyer Traci Park, had moved to “defend racism” in a case where she represented the city of Anaheim against a city employee who accused a supervisor of using the “n-word.”
Park responded by accusing Darling of descending into “sleazy smear tactics,” and said she had “no choice but to respond.” She slammed Darling for representing a host of unsavory criminal defendants, including one who faced a gun-possession charge, after initially being accused of raping his victim at gunpoint in a public bathroom just hours after he was released from jail.
The salvos from the two candidates, a month before election day, marked a pronounced escalation of the contest to represent Council District 11, which stretches from Pacific Palisades to Los Angeles International Airport. Darling, 41, and Park, 46, previously had focused mostly on the issues of homelessness, public safety and the environment.
The two have been a study in sharp contrasts. Darling is a onetime Green Party member. Park is a former Republican. Park wants to expand the Los Angeles Police Department. Darling has called for more mental health workers. Darling opposed the city’s anti-camping ordinance. Park supported it.
Homelessness is the dominant issue in the City Council district serving Venice and other coastal areas.
The legal careers of the two Democrats had remained somewhat in the background before Thursday, when Spectrum News 1 reported on a 2020 case in which Park — a partner in the firm Burke, Williams & Sorenson — defended the city of Anaheim after a Black employee accused a fleet supervisor of using the “n-word” and other offensive taunts.
Legal papers filed in the case show that Park sought to have a judge dismiss the case, arguing that plaintiff Andrew Harrell’s lawyers had not provided specific enough information about the discrimination they claimed their client suffered.
“The only thing close to a specific allegation is the allegation that [the supervisor] had used the ‘n-word’ in front of Plaintiff,” Park’s brief in the case says. “However, further details on his use of the word, including any context, date or frequency, are absent. While an allegation of the use of this single word is serious, plaintiff does not allege the term was ever directed at him or that he was targeted with its usage.”
Park’s filing added that “not every utterance of a racial slur in the workplace violates” discrimination laws. She said the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that “for harassment to be actionable, it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”
An Orange County Superior Court judge rejected Park’s arguments and let the case proceed, according to court orders shared with The Times by the Darling campaign. Quoting the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the judge described the n-word as “perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English … a word expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.”
The judge said Harrell’s lawyers’ amended lawsuit “sufficiently alleges a claim for harassment.” Harrell ended the dispute with Anaheim last year, accepting a settlement payment. His attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s never OK to defend racism, even in court,” Darling said in a statement Friday. “The use of this racist slur has no place in our workplaces and Traci Park’s actions to defend racist employers is inexcusable.”
Park called it “outrageous” for Darling to suggest that she had defended racist language. As a contract attorney for the city of Anaheim, she said she merely investigated the allegations made by Harrell to determine their veracity and to recommend to the city how to respond.
“I do not condone the use of racially charged language, or harassing or discriminatory conduct, under any circumstances,” Park said. She called Darling a “failing candidate, whose message is not resonating with CD 11 voters and who has no plan to address catastrophic problems created by his biggest supporter, [retiring Councilman] Mike Bonin.”
Park said she had never intended to raise Darling’s legal history, until he sought to demonize hers. She said she did no more or less in the Anaheim case than other lawyers responding to similar litigation.
Both campaigns presented The Times with summaries of cases handled by their opponent.
Darling’s camp bashed Park for defending the city of Hemet when a police officer was accused of kicking a man in the face during an arrest; the city of Alhambra when a firefighter accused it of abridging his free speech rights, and a giant cargo shipping company, Dynamex, that was accused of misclassifying employees, resulting in a loss of pay and benefits.
Park said she was a junior associate 16 years ago when she briefly worked on two procedural motions in the Dynamex case. An attorney on the opposing side of that case, representing workers, confirmed that Park played a peripheral role.
Park’s campaign said that in Darling’s work as a federal public defender and in private practice, he represented an MS-13 gang member accused in a machete murder; “about a dozen individuals” involved in a methamphetamine ring; a man convicted of a sexual abuse against a teenage victim, and parents trying to retain custody of their children when the adults were accused of running a prostitution ring in their home.
In an interview, Park focused on a 2016 case in which an alleged gang member named Edgar Alexander Lobos was charged with assaulting a woman in a public bathroom in Lincoln Heights, just hours after his jail release.
The Park campaign’s summary included legal briefs in which Darling tried to get evidence against Lobos, then 27, thrown out of court in a federal gun-possession charge. Darling’s motion asked that a search and interview of Lobos both be deemed inadmissible because he said they were conducted illegally.
His brief argued, in part: “Here, police officers did not have probable cause to believe Mr. Lobos committed any offense as it has not established that the complaining witness’ identification of Mr. Lobos was reasonably trustworthy.”
Darling’s actions came after rape and other felony charges against Lobos were dropped in Los Angeles Superior Court. The Venice-based lawyer defended Lobos in the federal weapons case tied to the alleged rape, according to a brief that he filed in the case.
Erin Darling and Traci Park are vying for the Westside City Council seat held by Mike Bonin. Venice encampments and police funding are top issues.
Lobos pleaded guilty in 2017 to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 77 months in prison.
“Instead of accepting a woman’s statement — who was traumatized by being raped in a bathroom in a public park with a gun to her head — [Darling] attacked her credibility … It’s disgusting,” Park said in an interview.
Darling said he was proud to be a criminal defense lawyer who represented indigent defendants.
He rejected Park’s take on the Lobos case as “categorically false,” adding: “I represented my client in a federal case in which he was charged with being a felon in possession of a gun, nothing else. I never saw this woman, never questioned her and never attacked or criticized her. All state charges for any kind of sexual violence against my client had been dropped at the time I wrote the motion to suppress [evidence].”
“In the motion to suppress,” Darling continued, “I questioned the police’s failure to properly execute a photo lineup in questioning my client. He went to prison for the gun. He was not convicted of any sexual assault, and those charges were not the case in which I was the lawyer.”
Activists on opposing sides of the CD 11 race weighed in with their opinions about the legal fracas.
Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles tweeted out a message saying it was “alarmed by the clear anti-Blackness displayed by City Council candidate Traci Park” in the Harrell vs. Anaheim case.
Freddy Escobar, the president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, accused Darling of “playing the race card in an attempt to deflect from the failed policies which have decimated the Westside.”
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