Silent Ethics in City Hall

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s various breaches of the public trust prompted an amusing blog post by City Ethics Commissioner Bill Boyarsky, who was the best reporter and editor the LA Times ever had covering City Hall.

He writes about the “gag rule” that prevents him from saying anything about Delgadillo’s use of staff as go-fers and babysitters, his protracted violation of state law that requires all drivers to have car insurance, his lack of honesty regarding how his city-issued vehicle was damaged, which allowed him initially to charge taxpayers to get it fixed.

It’s apparent Boyarsky the retired journalist is chomping at the bit to say what he thinks about the city attorney’s overweening sense of entitlement. But the gag rule is more than just an inconvenience for a bigmouth. The way Boyarsky describes it, the gag rule is like a contract among insiders not to acknowledge the obvious:

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.

Who is served by this? Not the public. Not the victims of any alleged violations. No, this system, purportedly designed to enforce unethical behavior by high city officials in fact facilitates it by almost immediately muting public outrage, redirecting it into an airless dark realm, where deals get cut far from public view.

More Boyarsky:

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.”

So true. In about six months, there will be announcement: The City Attorney and the Ethics Commission have agreed on a settlement. He’s going to pay a fine! Your invitation to the fundraiser to defray the cost of the fine is in the mail. The usual arm-twisting of city contractors and the city’s legal community will then ensue.

In the meantime, none of Delgadillo’s colleagues will have to say anything in response to the public. “It’s in the hands of the ethics commission. Until they act, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment,” will be the refrain.

Look…I’m the last guy who would want to see anyone railroaded. It’s good to have a process that permits a dispassionate look at the facts. But Boyarsky describes a process that frustrates any attempt to hold high city officials accountable to the public’s standards of common sense. People are irate about what Delgadillo has already admitted to. Why does he deserve protection from the public’s wrath?

More to Boyarsky’s point: He was nominated to the Ethics Commission because of his experience with the byways of Los Angeles’ government. What is the point of bringing him into the process of policing City Hall ethics, and then putting a muzzle on him?

(In the same post, Boyarsky is funny in describing his battle of wits with a couple of Times reporters who used techniques Boyarsky should have recognized to get him to say more than he should have. Read the whole thing.)

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