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California

State Bar urged to discipline lawyer accused of threatening council president

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson at news conference in May after a City Hall critic handed in a speaker card featuring racially incendiary drawings.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Two months ago, Encino attorney Wayne Spindler provoked widespread revulsion at Los Angeles City Hall, handing in a public speaker card featuring a series of racially incendiary drawings.

The card showed pictures of a burning cross and man hung from a tree — images typically associated with the Ku Klux Klan — and used the N-word to describe City Council President Herb Wesson, who was presiding over that day’s meeting. Spindler, 46, was soon arrested on suspicion of making threats against Wesson, who is African American.

A judge issued a restraining order against Spindler, forcing him to stay at least 100 feet away from Wesson anywhere but council meetings. Yet Wesson allies and longtime City Hall watchers remained perplexed.

How, they asked, could a lawyer who uses threatening words and imagery -- he has repeatedly worn a Klan hood with a swastika to council meetings -- remain in good standing professionally? They called on the State Bar, the licensing arm of the state’s judicial branch, to have Spindler disciplined and possibly disbarred.

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So far, they’ve been disappointed.

In a recent letter, a State Bar official said he doesn’t plan on taking any action, at least for now. That’s due in part to the fact that Spindler has not been charged with a crime.

“The State Bar does not agree with the racist implications of Mr. Spindler’s drawing,” wrote deputy trial counsel Ross Viselman, “but we cannot bring disciplinary charges against him for exercising his right to free speech.”

The State Bar’s response infuriated one of the people who filed a complaint against Spindler: public affairs consultant Eric Rose. He contends the State Bar does not need formal criminal charges to determine that Spindler engaged in acts of “moral turpitude.”

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Rose, who received the State Bar letter, argued that the state licensing agency “lets attorneys who exhibit what most people would view as unethical conduct off the hook.”

“In my view, [Spindler’s activities] are clearly acts of moral turpitude, and I’m surprised the State Bar doesn’t agree,” said Rose, a partner with Englander, Knabe & Allen, a firm that lobbies on behalf of clients at City Hall and elsewhere.

The LAPD has not yet presented its findings on the Spindler incident to the District Attorney’s office. Detective Eric Reade, who is in charge of the LAPD’s Threat Management Unit, said the investigation is still under way.

The California Business and Professions Code authorizes the State Bar to punish attorneys convicted of crimes that are “substantially related” to their duties and qualifications. The group also can discipline lawyers who demonstrate dishonesty and moral turpitude, even when those actions have nothing to do with their legal work.

Rose sent a letter Wednesday asking the State Bar for a review of its decision to close his complaint against Spindler. ​​​​Meanwhile, another person who filed a complaint against Spindler, newspaper executive Danny Bakewell Sr., said he is still waiting to hear the State Bar’s findings. 

Bakewell, the executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American newspaper, said he views Spindler as a threat not just to Wesson but everyone at City Hall.

“Who knows what this guy will do?” Bakewell said. “What he has done already, dressing up with KKK garb, sending people notes … with a black man hanging from a noose, how would you trust that person’s judgment under any circumstances?”

Spindler, for his part, has denied making threats and filed legal claims with the city seeking at least $775,000 alleging he was wrongly arrested and had his civil rights violated. He says his comment card is a form of legally protected political speech — one that, for example, uses a burning cross to symbolize a city government “burning” with corruption.

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Spindler accused the people who filed State Bar complaints of trying to curry favor with Wesson, as a way to get city help for either their clients or their pet projects. “It’s a lot better to know somebody who’s the most powerful politician on the council than to not,” he said.

Bakewell called Spindler’s assertion “absurd.” Rose said he never informed Wesson, or his partners at his firm, that he had filed a State Bar complaint.

Representatives of the State Bar declined to discuss the complaints when contacted by The Times, saying its investigative process is confidential, unless it pursues disciplinary action. But in his letter, Viselman said a criminal charge of making threats against Wesson could go beyond offensive speech and qualify as moral turpitude.

“Whether Mr. Spindler’s conduct amounted to a hate crime or was merely ‘political hyperbole’ is a question the District Attorney’s office is most qualified to investigate,” he wrote.

“Of course,” Viselman added, “if Mr. Spindler is prosecuted, the State Bar will work with law enforcement and seek discipline, as appropriate.”

The filing of the State Bar complaints has not deterred Spindler from continuing to testify at public meetings. On Wednesday, he appeared before the Board of Public Works, where he spoke angrily about receiving a parking ticket.

The use of racial epithets at city meetings also continues. Moments before Spindler spoke, Armando Herman — another City Hall regular — delivered a two-minute, profanity-laced rant that featured the N-word at least eight times.

During the public comment period, Herman spoke of an intent to “bury” people whom he referred to using the racial epithet.

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Bakewell questioned whether those remarks were “an invitation to kill” — and said the LAPD should look into them. “If it did happen, it needs to be properly investigated,” he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZahniser

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