Chick Is a Portrait in Sharp Contrasts
The controller urged a probe of city contracts. She shrugs off charges of political grandstanding.
By Jessica Garrison and Patrick McGreevy
Times Staff Writers
February 21, 2004
Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick has her own way of gearing up for the day during her morning commute: She blasts bagpipe music on her car stereo and pictures herself as a Scottish warrior, heading into battle.
The fantasy might come as no surprise to her colleagues at City Hall, where Chick, the first woman elected to citywide office in Los Angeles, has acquired a reputation over the last decade as a firebrand who doesn’t shrink from a fight.
But recently, the former therapist raised the stakes by calling for criminal investigations into the way the airport department hands out contracts and sounding alarms about the potential for corruption at City Hall.
With the Los Angeles County Grand Jury and a federal grand jury looking into the city’s contracting practices, Chick finds herself alternately hailed as a crusader for clean government and dismissed as a political grandstander and a hypocrite.
The controller appears to be unfazed by the criticism.
Since calling for investigations into potential illegal acts in December, she has repeatedly said there was a widespread perception that those who want to do business with the city must ante up with campaign contributions.
“There is an arrogance in Los Angeles city government that is so thick you could cut it with a knife,” the former councilwoman said last month.
She also said she had formed an ethics brigade to crusade for cleaner government. Her first goal is a ban on city commissioners raising money for local political campaigns. The city’s 350 commissioners, most of whom are appointed by the mayor, oversee the city’s departments and award millions of dollars in contracts. At the same time, many raise thousands of dollars for elected officials in the city.
Several City Council members are also pushing for the ban, and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley have supported the proposal. Earlier this month, the city Ethics Commission endorsed the idea, and the full City Council could consider it this month.
Initially, however, Mayor James K Hahn did not embrace the idea, prompting the controller to threaten to withdraw her endorsement of his reelection. But amid mounting pressure, Hahn has proposed more sweeping restrictions on political contributions, fundraising and lobbying. He also said he would support the proposal to ban fundraising by commissioners.
Some City Hall observers have said that Chick’s agenda includes tainting Hahn’s administration because she wants to run for his office.
“Laura is just trying to get publicity,” said former City Councilman Hal Bernson, who describes himself as a friend. “She has no problem stepping on other people to do that.”
Chick acknowledges that she has pondered a possible run for mayor in 2005. Still, she is outraged that anyone would question her motives.
“I get very angry and very indignant when people attribute incorrect motives to me,” she said. “I know what my motives are, and I’m in a difficult struggle to achieve what the public wants.”
Despite more than a decade as an elected official in Los Angeles, Chick, 59, likes to portray herself as an outsider, one who stubbornly refuses to follow the unwritten rules of Los Angeles politics.
Raised in a relatively modest neighborhood of Beverly Hills, she married soon after college and settled down with her children in the San Fernando Valley. When she began to think about a career, she turned to social work, getting a master’s degree from USC.
In 1988, she began working as a field deputy to then-City Councilwoman Joy Picus, who represented a portion of the Valley. Soon after quitting that job in 1991, she stunned her former boss by running against her.
“She came to me and said she loved working for me, and she found it truly satisfying, but she wanted to think about what to do with her life,” Picus said. “She didn’t give a hint that she was going to run for office. I thought she had been less than forthright.”
Chick went on to defeat Picus in the 1993 election and quickly distinguished herself as an effective policymaker with a quirky, brash style.
“She got things for [her] district,” said David Fleming, chairman of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.
As head of the council’s Public Safety Committee, she championed efforts to improve the Police and Fire departments, at times fighting bitterly with then-Mayor Richard Riordan over the pace of improvements.
She was a vocal critic of wasteful practices, blasting the Department of Water and Power for spending $800,000 on catered food during a strike and the LAPD for spending bond money earmarked for construction on new furniture.
And she roiled the political establishment by calling City Hall “the most sexist, good-old-boys work environment” she had ever encountered.
She also acquired a reputation as someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously.
She amused reporters by forcing them to scramble out her office window and perch beside her on a ledge while she fielded questions and had a quick cigarette. (She has since quit smoking.) When her first grandchild was born, she was so excited that she issued a press release.
When term limits forced her off the council, she decided to run for controller in 2001. Shortly before she was sworn in, a new City Charter had injected more power into the controller’s office, giving Chick the authority to march into any city department and essentially conduct a performance review. Unlike her predecessors, who spent most of their time reviewing the finances of city departments, Chick can issue reports addressing the effectiveness and competence of departments and recommending changes. She and her staff of 180 have churned out nearly 60 critiques of city operations, tackling everything from city contracting to whether dogs and cats in the city’s animal shelters should be outfitted with sweaters to make them more appealing — a step her office favored.
The hardest-hitting audits have been of the city’s three proprietary departments: the port, Water and Power, and the airport. Those departments, which generate millions of dollars in revenue, are owned by the city but operate with very little oversight from the City Council.
Last spring, Chick charged that the Port of Los Angeles had been awarding long-term leases in a secretive selection process that relied on little analysis or documentation in rating shipping companies. She dinged the Department of Water and Power and its renewable-energy program, saying the agency spent too much on public relations, expensive entertainment and promotion, and not enough on developing new green power services.
But it is her audit of Los Angeles World Airports that has generated the biggest furor.
On Dec. 15, she released the document, which criticized the department for waste and mismanagement, particularly in the way the airport doles out millions of dollars in contracts to private companies.
Then, she summoned the City Hall press corps to a conference room near her office on the third floor of City Hall East, strode up to the lectern and accused airport officials of engaging in “potential illegal acts.”
She repeatedly refused to elaborate on what those acts might be, and warned reporters frantically flipping through the 51 pages of the audit that they would find no evidence of wrongdoing in the report before them. But she added that she was so concerned about the potential for corruption at the airport that she had asked federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to investigate.
A few days later, she summoned reporters back to her office and declared that the city’s citizen commission system needed an overhaul.
Chick said it appeared that elected officials were using the commission posts to reward big campaign contributors and fundraisers. Those political appointees, she said, are then in a position to pressure people doing business with the city to make campaign contributions.
The whole system, she said, gave her “a visual image of fungus.”
“She learned the art of grandstanding,” said political consultant Joe Cerrel, a friend. “I say that as a compliment.”
Airport officials were incensed. They questioned the methodology of the audit and said they had found several major errors in Chick’s report that called into question the integrity of the entire document.
Some commissioners at the airport and elsewhere were angry that Chick would impugn their integrity without offering proof of corruption or misdeeds.
“Put up or shut up,” said Water and Power Commissioner Dominick Rubalcava, a political fundraiser who has served on various commissions for more than two decades. “If people are yelling and screaming about the existence of a problem, the first question I have is: Show me the pattern of institutional malfeasance.”
Chick is undaunted by the criticism.
“How does anyone think you get anything done … without both making noise and making waves?” she asked.
Some City Hall insiders found it ironic that Chick would be leveling criticism at the Airport Commission.
When she launched her first campaign for City Council, her husband at the time, Robert Chick, was president of that same commission, and one of her first fundraising events was hosted by an airport commissioner, Leland Wong. (Wong resigned from the DWP commission earlier this year after his employer, Kaiser Permanente, concluded that he had misused company funds to benefit city politicians.)
After that 1992 event hosted by Wong, Chick said, she returned “quite a few of the checks” because they came from airport contractors. Commissioners are prohibited from soliciting contributions from people with matters pending before them in the previous 12 months.
In more recent years, campaign records show, Chick has turned to commissioners for political contributions, collecting $22,000 in direct donations since 1998.
“Laura has raised money from commissioners and has gone to commissioners to have them raise money for her, so I don’t quite understand why all of a sudden she seems to be attacking a lot of people for what she has done,” said political consultant Harvey Englander, who worked on Chick’s two City Council campaigns.
Chick sees no contradiction in her actions.
“One reason I am passionate about removing money is because of my personal experiences,” Chick said. “I know how the game is played. It’s gotten worse, and it’s time to change it.”
Recently, Chick has begun to muse about running for mayor.
“I would not be honest if I said I have never thought about what kind of mayor I would be, and how I would do the job,” she said. “When I think about it the most is when I am the most disappointed and unhappy about our leadership today.”
But she said she was primarily focused on winning a second term as controller.
“There’s still lots and lots of running room to continue developing this office and taking it further, in terms of the role the controller plays,” Chick said.
“I laugh sometimes when I remember all the people who said, ‘Oh, [don’t run for] controller, you’re going to be so bored.’ “