A two year investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office into credit card abuse by West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran has been unceremoniously dropped, the WeHo News reported late Monday afternoon.
(West Hollywood Mayor John Duran welcoming President Obama to West Hollywood for his reelection fundraiser at the House of Blues. The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles stands behind him. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Saying, "The District Attorney has let us know that they've completed their investigation and they will not be bringing any criminal charges against John Duran or any other elected official in the city of West Hollywood in the matter regarding the use of credit cards by elected officials," Mr. Duran's attorney George Bird told WeHo News that the council member was now free of suspicion that he had done anything wrong.
After telling WeHo News that "our procedures for [the way these notices are relayed] are undergoing review," the District Attorney's Jean Guccione, Director of Communications, declined to comment on the news today, saying she would comment officially "in a couple weeks."
"I am relieved that it is finally over so I can return to working for the people of the city of West Hollywood," Duran emailed me Monday afternoon.
I wonder if part of that DA procedural review will include the way the DA's office appeared to leak information to the LA Times, thus potentially influencing the jury pool if the investigation lead to a felony case that went to trial. In my long experience covering crime, lawsuits and public officials, standard operating procedure is for an official or spokesperson to refuse to publicly discuss "an on-going investigation" lest false information get out or a tainted jury pool jeopardize the case. "I don't want to try my case in the press," I'm usually told.
David Demerjian, head of the DA's Public Integrity Division, seemed to operate from a different standard. A simple online search of Demerjian's name indicates that he has announced several investigations into possible corruption by elected officials, with no clear indication of how those investigations turned out (such as an investigation into the discretionary spending funds of the LA County Supervisors). With Duran, Demerjian conceded he couldn't prove felony credit card abuse but he told The Times he would make Duran a "test case" of a state ethics law anyway. The Times, meanwhile, seemed to treat the investigation of Duran as the lynchpin to the next big city scandal like Bell or Vernon.
And while the WeHo News posted and e-blasted the news about Duran being cleared out to subscribers yesterday, the LA Times as of yet has posted no update to the story the paper pursued with such great relish. So, the original story - which was picked up by the Associated Press and widely distributed as "West Hollywood Councilman's expenses probed" (in the Denver Post, for example) - remains out there with the stain on Duran's reputation intact.
There is precedent for law enforcement and prosecutors to treat information about investigations carefully, exemplified by the story of Richard Jewell. In 1996, Jewell was a security guard working at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta when he discovered a pipe bomb. He alerted police and helped evacuate the area before the bomb went off. He was initially hailed as a hero for saving so many lives but the FBI soon started calling him a "person of interest," leading to a "trial by the media." Despite being completely exonerated, his life was greatly impacted.
There are other factors to be considered, as well. Last year I wrote an essay entitled "Nuance and LGBT News" about how the LGBT community needs its own independent press because mainstream media miss or blithely ignore nuances that might change the meaning and accuracy of a news story - with unforeseen consequences. I can't say that antigay or anti-Latino bias drove this investigation, but the suspicion is underneath my skin, nonetheless.
A point of disclosure before I go further. Several years ago, I used to regularly have lunch with Duran on Sundays after church. I chipped in my $20 for the bill, unless I was short, in which case I'd repay him or pick up the bill later. The lunches were always off-the-record so we could chat openly. About two years ago, we stopped doing lunch but for ethical reasons, I recused myself from covering this meals-reimbursement controversy as a news story - which I assigned to attorney and Frontiers writer Peter DelVecchio for the magazine.
I did, however, cover the issue during the WeHo elections (see here and here). But this particular story has always seemed like government overreach - a ginned up attempt to give the impression that the city of West Hollywood was akin to the scandal-plagued cities of Bell and Vernon. And now that the investigation has been dropped, I basically want to express my own opinion about how unfairly I think the city and Duran have been treated.
I am all for transparency and investigations into possible public corruption, misuse of public funds or violations of the Brown Act or Public Record laws. But investigations are supposed to be clear-eyed and unbiased, open to many avenues to get to the truth - not coming up with a preconceived conclusion and picking the facts to fit it, which is what I think happened here.
Demerjian told The Times that while there were "more blatant" examples of the improper use of city expenses, "I don't mind if Mr. Duran is the test case... The law is you can be reimbursed if it is a necessary expense. The meeting may be necessary, but the meal isn't in West Hollywood."
The investigation revolved around state law AB 1234 that requires local cities, counties and special districts to provide ethics training and create written policies on requirements for reimbursement expenses concerning travel, meals, and lodging - all of which must be filed as expense reports and are public records.
West Hollywood City Attorney Mike Jenkins, who also represents several other cities that could have been impacted by the "test case," disputed Demerjian's contention and said Duran did no wrong. AB 1234 author Democratic Assemblymember Simon Salinas also told Duran's attorney that Duran did no wrong. But neither opinion was given much weight, leading to an impression of guilt that lead to "guilt-by-association" in Duran's friend Assemblymember Betsy Butler's re-election race (see here and here).
And while editorial choices are made all the time, The Times seemed to be particularly selective in the quotes their chose for these stories. For instance, after The Times' May 5, 2012 story, the City of West Hollywood issued a press release from City Attorney Jenkins.
"The City of West Hollywood has adopted a formal policy in accordance with state ethics laws that requires full documentation of all meal expenditures at public expense that involve City business. These expense reimbursement policies are comparable to other cities. In response to suggestions from the District Attorney's office, the City is updating its expense reimbursement policy to assure that it is current. The City has been informed that the District Attorney has completed its investigation as regards the City and its employees and the City does not expect any further action by the District Attorney with respect to the City or City employees," continued City Attorney Mike Jenkins. "The District Attorney has not informed the City of the specific allegations being made against Councilmember John Duran, so the City cannot comment at this point on the District Attorney's inquiry." (Emphasis mine.)
But in their May 7 story about how the residents of WeHo expressed support for Duran during a city council meeting, The Times used only this quote from Jenkins: "In response to suggestions from the district attorney's office, the city is updating its expense reimbursement policy to assure that it is current."
That left the impression that something fishy had happened and that there was possible fiscal mismanagement. The irony of this is that while the city of LA had to close to a $404-million budget gap in 2011, the city of West Hollywood at the same time had a $68.5 million General Fund reserve and was proceeding with the new library project with money raised for that specific campaign while maintaining a AAA credit rating.
Nor was context given when Demerjian talked about and The Times wrote about the "hundreds of pages of expenses accrued by Duran and other council members." The DA said it was OK to expense a meal for city business when out of town on city business - but not within the city limits, especially if the guests are other city employees. The Times did note that the "part-time council members each make about $15,000 a year, according to data from the state controller's office."
But both the DA and The Times seemed unimpressed that the councilmembers all had jobs outside West Hollywood during the three years under investigation - except John Duran who lives and has law offices in WeHo, thereby enabling him to be more available do city business at lunch. Additionally, I've seen drafts of Duran's reimbursement sheets for the specific meals in WeHo the DA was investigating and from my point of view, the expenses seemed to make sense.
For instance, there were two meetings with Duran's then-deputy Hernan Molina regarding the Gay Men's Forum about crystal meth. Those WeHo-broadcast forums were so important in sharing information and stories about the crystal meth/HIV crisis that I started a regular column in IN Los Angeles magazine that still continues now in Frontiers. Reports back to us indicate the columns have been life-saving.
There were several lunches with Molina and people like Geoff Kors, then-executive director of Equality California and Diane Abbitt, EQCA board member and political action committee chair about "marriages" - as West Hollywood became the center of the universe for that summer of love for same sex couples in 2008.
Duran did not tell me what was discussed at those lunches - but I have been covering the LGBT community in LA for a long time and looking at the dates, the people, and the very brief explanations provided with the expenditures, I could easily extrapolate the city-related discussions, while someone not as well connected to the LGBT community, or West Hollywood or someone with a hidden agenda, might not. But that's why a real investigation considers all evidence and points of view, not just the ones that fit the premise.
The Times wrote: "The tab that Duran rang up certainly looked questionable. But is it a crime?"
Luckily, someone at the DA's office looked seriously at that expense report, at the state law and WeHo policy and considered what Jenkins and others had been saying and concluded the answer is, "No."
After the election, new DA Jackie Lacey announced that Demerjian was reassigned to directing Specialized Prosecutions. Wonder what that will yield.