The honorable thing

CITY ATTY. Rocky Delgadillo came to office with sterling credentials and the support of some of Los Angeles’ most esteemed leaders. He had a captivating personal story — Eastside kid who did well, went to Harvard, then to Columbia, then on to one of the nation’s most impressive law firms and City Hall, where he worked for Mayor Richard Riordan. In short, Delgadillo had the drive, the education and the support to be one of this city’s leading public officials. Instead, he has squandered those advantages on egocentrism and bad judgment, falling well short of the high standards required of an office that prosecutes others for offenses such as he has committed. He should resign.

Brown family: An editorial July 3 mischaracterized the election successes of the Brown family when it stated that no Brown had ever lost a Democratic primary in California. No Brown has ever lost a Democratic primary for state office, but Jerry Brown did lose the party primary here in the 1992 presidential campaign. —

We take no delight in this position. It is never a happy sight to watch a public leader contort in the media glare the way Delgadillo has in recent weeks. But the evidence of misconduct has mounted too steadily — and the roots of Delgadillo’s troubles go back too far — to sanction his continued role in Los Angeles government.

There were warning indicators from the beginning. During his first race for elected office, Delgadillo received the support of billboard companies, which donated $424,000 worth of space to his campaign to defeat City Councilman Mike Feuer. When Delgadillo’s office later negotiated agreements that allowed hundreds of illegal billboards to receive permits, critics accused Delgadillo of cutting a soft deal to benefit his benefactors. Then, when one of those companies was accused of vandalism for allegedly destroying city trees, Delgadillo’s staff closed the case after a cursory investigation, refueling the suspicions of that relationship. The resulting spectacle of fines by the Ethics Commission and attacks from clean-government advocates was particularly dispiriting in that the target was the official elected to police such laws. Those concerns were amplified by reports of fudging on Delgadillo’s political resume — he claimed to have gone to Harvard on a football scholarship, then revised that; he also claimed to have been an “All-American,” then acknowledged that he was an honorable mention — and rapid staff churn, as capable senior officials in the office came and went with alarming speed.

To be sure, Delgadillo has registered achievements. His neighborhood prosecutor program was a smart innovation that put prosecutors in police stations, and his use of gang injunctions, while not universally popular, demonstrated his commitment to combating gang violence. He has touted consumer and environmental protection — well-intentioned undertakings — and his negotiating skills are credited with helping hold down the city’s tab in resolving the Rampart scandal and other lawsuits.

But Los Angeles’ city attorney has displayed two significant character defects, which have collided to bring him into disrepute: his overweening ambition and his inattention to the details and ethics of his office. Delgadillo’s ambition is nothing new, but it has never been particularly pleasant to observe. Barely had he become city attorney before he began openly dreaming of Washington — “Team 1600,” his political advisors were dubbed, a reference to the White House they imagined inhabiting one day. They stumbled along the way, notably last year, when Delgadillo waged a shrill and doomed campaign against Jerry Brown for state attorney general — this in a state where no member of the Brown family has ever lost a Democratic primary. Even today, as his troubles have mounted, Delgadillo is said to covet the office of Los Angeles district attorney.

That’s not likely to happen, and that’s because of Delgadillo’s other conspicuous weaknesses: his incapacity for detail and inattentiveness to ethics. In recent weeks, Delgadillo has admitted allowing his wife to his use city car and having the city pay for repairs when she crashed it. As he attempted to deflect that controversy, Delgadillo denied ever driving without insurance, then admitted that his insurance had lapsed. A few days later, he acknowledged that his wife’s consulting company had failed to secure a city business license and had not filed state tax returns for five years. More recently, he has been forced to deny charges from his own staff that he intervened in a criminal prosecution to help take the heat off an influential grocery store owner.

Throughout, Delgadillo has pledged to restore his standing with the public, but he has largely avoided questions. Given the opportunity to discuss his record with The Times editorial board, he initially accepted and asked for time to prepare, then reconsidered and declined. That is his prerogative, but his retreat into silence should not deter the public from rendering its own verdict. Delgadillo has insisted that he be held to a high standard. Applying that standard, we find him wanting, and respectfully suggest that he do the honorable thing and resign.