New City Attorney Carmen Trutanich promised to do things differently when he ran for office this year.
Less than a month after taking the job, he’s created a whirl of questions at City Hall about his approach after announcing he’s investigating possible criminal activity linked to city expenditures involved in Michael Jackson’s lavish memorial.
What began as an investigation into how the city might recoup the estimated $1.4 million it spent on police protection and other services took an abrupt turn last week when Trutanich disclosed his investigators had turned up “criminal aspects.”
“I don’t even know if there’s any crimes that have been committed,” Trutanich told reporters after he appeared before the City Council. “We took a turn in a different direction, and we’re investigating. That’s it.”
Trutanich spokesman John Franklin said Wednesday the office has been requesting documents and conducting interviews, but he declined to provide further details.
“The investigation is ongoing, both from the criminal and civil aspect,” he said. “There is no timetable on this.”
Trutanich has been silent this week about the July 7 memorial at the downtown Staples Center.
No one in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office or the city treasurer’s office has been contacted or questioned.
“I have no idea what he is talking about,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who was serving as acting mayor on the day of the memorial because Villaraigosa was out of town. She said she was unaware of any wrongdoing.
“We didn’t pay for the funeral. We paid for the security and safety of the people on the streets,” Perry added.
Los Angeles routinely deploys extra police to keep order at large events like the Academy Awards and the annual marathon, but the decision to turn out 3,200 officers for the Jackson event — and spend nearly $50,000 to feed them — created a public backlash at a time when the mayor has been struggling to close a projected $530 million budget hole.
Police anticipated as many as 250,000 fans could show up, many without tickets. But those fears never materialized and the event was orderly and safe.
After the memorial, Trutanich said his office would look into whether the city could legally press third parties to pick up at least some of the tab — in other words, Jackson’s estate or family, or AEG, the owner of Staples Center.
But that’s in conflict with Villaraigosa, who canceled a donation drive to defray the taxpayer bill and decided the city would cover the costs.
To collect donations, the city treasurer set up an online donation system using PayPal, which received $41,106 from about 2,000 donors before the mayor ordered it shut down. Paypal is holding $39,445, the treasurer said, which is the tally after refunds and the company’s fees were subtracted.
The Jackson family declined comment through a spokesman, as did AEG. The Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Trutanich campaigned as a political outsider eager to upend the status quo, and his disclosure about possible criminal activity brought a splash of publicity to an often-overlooked office whose authority is limited to prosecuting misdemeanors.
Evidence of more serious violations, if found, could be forwarded to the district attorney or U.S. attorney.
“Misusing public funds would have to be where he’s headed,” said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. “I don’t know, based on his comments, what he meant.”