Bill Boyarsky
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Gag rule strikes again

The Rocky Delgadillo story is another milestone in my education as an ethics commissioner.

We have a rule on the commission: We five commissioners are not supposed to comment publicly—maybe even privately—on alleged violations that may come before us for a vote. No other city commission is so restricted. We’re supposed to be like judges.

The theory behind this rule is that a comment might prompt a lawyer for the accused to claim commissioner prejudice and have the talkative commission member barred from taking part in the case.

It’s a pretty strict rule. I interpret it this way: Suppose a city official drove a city car to a Sunday baseball game, got drunk and smashed into an MTA bus. More than 250 people witnessed the crash, including 50 on the bus and it was a huge story on TV and in the papers. Then suppose I was asked if I thought the official violated ethics rules governing the use of city cars. Under the rule, I could not comment, no matter how many people saw the crash, no matter how big a story it was. I could not say a thing, even if I had been on the bus, and a reporter tracked me down to the hospital where I was being treated for my injuries.

I was well aware of the gag rule when Matt Lait of the Los Angeles Times reached me on my vacation. I was just putting our bags down in a bedroom of my brother’s home in Redwood City thinking relaxing thoughts. I was glad to hear from Matt. He and Scott Glover broke the Rampart police scandal when I was city editor and I admired the way they worked.

Matt told me he was writing a story alleging that Delgadillo had members of his office staff run personal errands and do baby-sitting. What did I think? I explained to Matt that I was gagged on the issue, as were other commissioners. He couldn’t have been more sympathetic. He understood my position completely. His friendly, unassuming way made me feel comfortable. Well, he said, could I comment on the situation in general, without talking about Rocky’s case? I guessed I could do that. I gave him a nice quote on what I thought about the general subject of babysitting and errands. He complimented me on the quality of my quote, saying it must have been something I learned from getting all those quotes as a reporter.

In the paper the next day, Matt used my quote in a way that sounded as if I were criticizing Rocky. I must not have been careful enough talking to him. The guy was friendly and considerate. What a dirty trick, just the kind of thing I used to do when I interviewed people. Generally, it worked.

I vowed to be more careful when Patrick McGreevy of the Times called me the next day. He wanted to know if the ethics commission was going to investigate the Delgadillo affair and whether I would call for such a probe. I replied that I could not say anything until I talk to the other commissioners, which would be at our July 17 meeting.

Irate at getting the old bureaucratic runaround, McGreevy said nobody at City Hall is doing anything about the Delgadillo situation, implying we all were a bunch of spineless, know-nothing ,cover- up artists. I got the impression that this is how I might come out in his story.

If you want to say anything more, McGreevy said, you can call me, obviously intent on terrifying me into talking. Then, in what I thought was definitely a Dirty Harry tone, he said, “Have a nice vacation.”

Returning home, I picked up the Saturday Times and read “The city ethics commission and the State Bar of California have begun inquiries related to Delgadillo’s alleged use of city resources for personal purposes.”

When did that happen? How did the Times get hold of this? Why didn’t someone tell me and the other commissioners? Why did I have to read about it in the newspaper?

I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a practice, we are not told much of anything. Staff members treat us as if we are elderly parents, and they don’t want to worry us with troubling news. Sometimes I get the feeling that if I object too loudly, someone will jam a hypodermic needle in my arm and put me to sleep.

I am probably breaking the gag rule in writing about this issue but I’m willing to risk it.

The gag rule is not only stupid, but it’s against the public interest. The chance of a commissioner being disqualified by a comment is remote. Most ethics violations reach us for a vote after attorneys for the accused and the ethics commission staff have settled them behind closed doors. We commissioners are presented with a settlement agreement that has few details. We generally approve the settlement. Usually, discussion is limited.

The gag rule is a big reason why many people consider the ethics commission irrelevant. When allegations of ethical violations are splashed on the news and are being discussed from the harbor to the Valley, ethics commissioners should be able to say more than “no comment.”

I am off for a tour of Russia. I’ll be sure to check on whether Putin gives his commissioners more freedom than we have.

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