Dog Bites

The Evil Among Us

When Neil Eisenberg, a lawyer running for city attorney, read last week that the City Attorney's Office had investigated the personal and financial background of an official at the Department of Elections, and that the city attorney routinely does 25 to 50 such background checks every year, he did what any self-respecting candidate would do: He tried to create a campaign issue out of thin air.

Eisenberg fired off a fevered press release calling the background checks -- or, as he put it, the "secret inquiries" -- "grotesque and Nixonian." He accused City Attorney Louise Renne of a "pattern of behavior that smacks of secret police tactics."

"Who gave the city attorney the power to investigate the private lives of [city] employees?" the press release demanded.

Well, according to Renne, the City Charter gives her the power. In fact, her office is required to investigate all whistle-blower charges brought against city employees, she says. Her office does not routinely do background checks on employees, and when they are done they usually concern mundane matters like workers' compensation fraud or playing basketball on city time, Renne says. When embezzlements and serious crimes are uncovered, she refers them to the Ethics Commission or the district attorney. In this case, whistle-blowers alleged problems within the Elections Department, prompting the investigation. The probe's target, acting Director Phillip Paris, wrote a letter himself to the Board of Supervisors accusing his own department of not being able to account for thousands of ballots from last November's election. After Paris' letter was made public, Renne revealed the existence of her investigation, and Paris was suspended.

Eisenberg's breathless press release also promised, "When I become city attorney next year, I am going to stop any secret investigations by the office cold."

Which raises the idle question of what he might do if he heard some city clerk was throwing around thousands of dollars in Las Vegas like so much Kleenex. "That would be OK to look into," the candidate says. "I better not pick up your newspaper next week and read that Neil Eisenberg will not investigate city employees."

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