Long-shot candidate's provocative video gains attention
Feb 28, 2013 (Los Angeles Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
No one has accused Los Angeles mayoral candidate Kevin James of lacking for showmanship. His spirited debate performances have given an outsize profile to the onetime talk radio host's long-shot campaign.
But the financially strapped candidate's release of a Web video showing his rivals as burying a dead body in a shallow grave has set off accusations that James has overreached in trying to draw attention to himself in the last days before the Tuesday primary.
The James video depicts top contenders Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti as part of a culture of corruption at City Hall. Actors playing the city controller and city councilman bury a body in the dead of night -- an effigy for the public funds the duo has allegedly wasted.
Neither Greuel nor Garcetti has faced charges of malfeasance. And their rival's claim that Los Angeles operates a particularly corrupt city government is not borne out by an academic study the James camp cites as proof.
But James stood by his contention that the two city officials have been corrupt because, he charges, they helped redirect funds for parking, fire hydrants and to purposes not supported by the public. James campaign manager Jeff Corless said the waste included "outrageous salaries and pensions [of] public employees, whose unions back their campaigns to the tune of millions of dollars."
Campaign observers said James was relying on the over-the-top imagery and ominous undertones of the video to stir up the mayoral contest.
"It's a stunt," Parke Skelton, a veteran Los Angeles political consultant, said of the nearly two-minute video.
"It's a common tactic to try to generate press attention in a race where you don't have the funds to compete for voters in any other way," said Skelton, who is not aligned with any of the candidates in the race. "You can do something extremely provocative to get attention, but it doesn't necessarily help your campaign."
The James spot plays off the frequent claim by Greuel, the city controller, that she would be the best mayor because she has investigated city agencies and knows "where the bodies are buried." That's because, James retorts, Greuel "helped bury them."
James, the lone Republican in the field, accused Greuel and Garcetti of "raiding" special city funds to help close budget gaps created by their mismanagement. The money went to cover employee raises, pension costs, "redecorated offices" and "handouts to special interests," James charges.
City officials have defended transfers into the city's general fund as a stop-gap measure to pay for crucial services, including Police and Fire Department operations, when tax receipts took a sharp downward turn during the Great Recession.
James' opponents belittled the video.
"If the Kevin James campaign falls in a forest, can anyone hear it With 209 views on YouTube, the only people seeing Kevin James' ad is Kevin James," said Greuel's chief strategist, John Shallman.
After speaking at a mayoral forum on education Wednesday along with James and other candidates, Garcetti laughed about the video. "I told Kevin, 'We're going to bury you. We're going to bury the competition,' " Garcetti said.
With less than $25,000 cash on hand the last time campaign totals were reported, James has few options to draw attention to himself. (An independent campaign group, however, has spent more than $658,000 to air television and radio ads on James's behalf.) The new spot appeared to be garnering just the kind of "free" media attention that campaigns hope for when they release such videos.
At least three local television affiliates jumped on the story. CNN had a camera at the news conference when the campaign released the video, which it dubbed "Buried." KFI radio, Reuters and other outlets followed suit.
One of the claims in the ad is that "corruption is the way of life in City Hall, making L.A. one of the most corrupt regions in America."
Corless previously said that the notion of Los Angeles as a hotbed of corruption came, in part, from a study released last year by researchers at the University of Illinois. But the James campaign misconstrues what that research found.
The statistics in the Illinois study come not from the city of L.A. but from the federal judiciary's Central District of California. That includes seven counties with more than 18 million residents, making it by far the most populous federal jurisdiction in America, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
The entire region ranks high in total corruption convictions in large part because it encompasses so many government employees. The Illinois study did not break out per capita rates of corruption by region, but it did for entire states. By that measure, California ranked 35th in number of convictions for public corruption over the years of the study. The "leaders" in the most corrupt derby were the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.
Officials in the U.S. attorney's office (where James, now an entertainment attorney, once worked) said they can remember only a few recent criminal cases against Los Angeles city employees.
Three former building and safety inspectors have been convicted of taking bribes in a probe that began in 2010. A former official of the Housing Authority got 51 months in prison last year for diverting more than $500,000 to a sham company he set up with his brothers.
Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon has been accused of using a false address for electoral purposes. That case is pending.
James' camp said other corruption cases prosecuted by the district attorney bolster the notion of trouble at City Hall.
Political scientist Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois, one of the authors of the corruption study, said the worst abuses tended to be not in Southern California but in other parts of the country.
"You essentially have in Los Angeles a reform city," Simpson said. "The places with the most corruption, like Chicago and New Orleans, come out of machine politics. You don't have the same thing out there."
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