Rules of Engagement
I knew I'd be treading onto unfamiliar terrain — his preferred terrain — without the necessary weaponry. I knew I would be going head to head with a skilled and wily adversary, a man schooled since birth in the secret arts of gaining and keeping the upper hand and crushing enemies under his heel with maddening subtlety.
Yes, I knew all this. And still, I willingly — foolishly you might say — entered the arena of negotiation with investment banker and superrich guy F. Warren Hellman.
The task at hand: to agree on a time and place where we could finally, after months of building acrimony, settle a personal score on the manly field of honor. For the sake of those just joining us, I'll recap the long-running Cothran-Hellman feud:
Back in November, I received word through intermediaries — several layers of them actually — that Hellman was mad as a hornet. I had called him “crusty old Warren Hellman” in this column, and while I thought it a passing remark, perhaps not as well-researched as it could have been, he took it as the gravest of insults.
You see, it was where the comment came from that stung so badly. It'd come from the likes of me — a college dropout who doesn't know a bordeaux from a cab, a stock from an option, a Renoir from a Monet, an Aston Martin from a Stutz Bearcat, or a Waterford from a Baccarat. And I had insulted him — a multimillionaire baron of finance, a man married to a ballerina, a member in long standing of San Francisco's gentry, a member of the inner circle of the city's ancien regime.
Well, he couldn't just let that sort of thing stand. He had centuries of class distinction to defend. If he didn't, who knows what horrors the little people would think possible? One shudders (cue the sound of a thousand rattling fine china teacups in Pacific Heights parlors) to even imagine.
The course was clear: I had to be crushed.
But it would not be a simple crushing.
You see, Hellman operates in a rarefied world, one of subtle, complex rules of engagement. My punishment would be meted out in a footrace with the great man, to be sure. But the magnitude of my offense required a greater degree of humiliation, one that couldn't be satisfied by simply dusting me in said race.
No, the race would merely be the coup de gráce. The beginning of my lesson in power and the proper execution of same would take place during the pre-race negotiations, high above San Francisco in a soundproof gym, on a highly secure floor of the Maritime Plaza building.
Where no one could hear me scream.
I had agreed back in November to race Hellman at an undetermined time and place. Arranging a meeting to establish the time and place was excruciating, the first step in Hellman's design to break me.
For weeks I would call the office of Hellman's political aide-de-camp, Mark Mosher, the executive director of the Downtown Conspiracy to Crush Progressive Politics Now and Forever (a body over which Hellman is currently serving as grand vizier). I would talk to Mosher's cheerful and helpful assistant, Elizabeth. She would then call across several high-rises to Hellman's scheduling secretary, Sharon. Sharon would walk the few feet into Hellman's office and see just when Warren was available to meet with me to discuss the exact nature, extent, and location of my punishment.
And that was just the flow of information from me to him. Imagine the complexity and glacial pace of the communication back in my direction. It was a simple footrace, but arranging to meet to discuss arranging the race was taking on a life of its own.
I quickly realized the delay was an intentional distraction. As I became overly focused on a pre-race meeting, my class antagonism — the most important, and perhaps only, advantage I could tap into for the race — was waning as time dragged on.
Oh, what a wily one you are, Senor Hellman, I remember thinking to myself. So this is how it works, does it? So this is what they call the softening of the adversary.
Eventually, after weeks of trying, I got a meeting date: Dec. 10. But there was a catch: I had to attend a stretch class with Hellman. His private stretch class, in his private gym.
I was puzzled. What could he be up to?
But I accepted. To turn him down would have been a sign of weakness.
Little did I know that he was playing me like a finely tuned Stradivarius. He was appealing to my fragile sense of manhood. Of course I would accept. He knew that. He never doubted it. As it would tragically turn out, he had me right where he wanted me, moving me like a passive pawn on the great chessboard of life.
I showed up at the appointed hour and was led into Hellman's corner office: 11th floor, big windows, a view of San Francisco Bay so large it could choke a whale.
He told me a touching story about a life travail he'd experienced. It was a travail similar to one currently going on in my life, so it was all the more powerful. As he talked, I began to see him in human terms: Hey, this guy ain't that bad. He has problems just like the rest …
I stopped myself. My God, he was cunning. He must have known his story would resonate. But how? Dear Lord, had he done research on me? Did he find that old criminal case in the East Bay? Was this the point of the delay in meeting me? To have a private eye provide him the information necessary to win advantage?
I stopped myself again. I was falling prey to paranoia.
Oh mercy, was this part of his design too?
In a matter of minutes I had already been knocked off balance.
Little did I realize that the worst was yet to come. [page]
We decided on a date for the race: Jan. 22, a Friday. Again, the choice was well-planned. That's the day I close on a home. On that day, I will have been chewed to the bone and worn out by the vagaries and red tape of the real estate industry. Again, I pondered the evil genius of my adversary: Could it be that Hellman knew this, too? He is a captain of industry. And, oh God no, my real estate agent used to work for the Pacific Stock Exchange, which is a member of the Downtown Conspiracy to Crush Progressive Politics Now and Forever, over which Hellman rides herd. Could it be?
No, it is the paranoia again, I told myself. Another Hellman-devised distraction. I must resist.
I agreed to his proposed date and tried hard not to notice the sound of trapdoors closing behind me.
I was led into Hellman's private gym. There, he played for me a videotape of a strange ritual called Ride and Tie, an athletic event founded by the Levi Strauss & Co. (Hellman is an heir) to publicize its wares. Ride and Tie involves two-person teams: One runs and one rides a horse, racing across mountain ranges. The rider and runner switch roles throughout the 30-some-mile race. Hellman told me he engages in this strange and exacting ritual seven times a year.
I watched in horror as the men and women of the Ride and Tie pushed themselves to Herculean extremes of physical endurance. Just as I thought I couldn't take anymore, there was Warren on the screen riding and tying in cute little shorts and a bandanna jauntily knotted around his neck. I felt sick. Dear God, what had I gotten myself into?
Already rung dry by the negotiations, I proceeded to the mysteries of the so-called “stretch class.”
I was introduced to Hellman's personal trainer, Dawn, a serious-looking blonde with well-defined muscles I had no idea existed. She smiled that smile that says “I will crush you if you cross me little man” and led me to the foam mat of my destruction.
I will not go on in too much detail about the humiliations I suffered there. Suffice it to say F. Warren Hellman is a limber little minx, and I am not.
His well-crafted plan of intimidation had worked its evil ways on me. I shook his hand and walked out of his lair a broken man.
But worry not. I'm going ahead with the race. I will show up on the southern embankment of the Golden Gate Bridge at 7:30 in the morning on Jan. 23, and I will race F. Warren “The Minx” Hellman. I am, if not a man of physical prowess, a man of my word.
Between then and now I will be deep in thought with my trusted circle of advisers, if I can drag them off their respective barstools. We will be crafting a plan of devious precocity; we will also be playing to win. I can't take the easy way out and simply exercise, get in shape, and compete honorably. That would be pedestrian.
And I don't think F. Warren Hellman, that evil genius of class warfare, would appreciate such a prosaic approach to competition.
No, this game requires deeper, more Richelieuian flourishes. And let me be clear: I make these preparations not out of spite, but deep respect.
F. Warren Hellman has taught me an important lesson on how the world works. It was a hard lesson to learn. But now I am ready to show my mentor how far I've come.
I hope I make him proud.
He's Come Undone?
I see District Attorney Terence Hallinan has now engaged, for the third time in recent memory, in an unethical private communication with a judge. I can't help but think something terrible is going on with our district attorney. It seems like every time I turn around, he is making yet another boneheaded move reminiscent of a first-year law student who is stumbling through a mock trial. And it's making me wonder: Is there something fundamentally wrong with Terence Hallinan? Like, does he have a major malfunction we all don't know about?
I mean, has Terence Hallinan come undone?
I won't recap the idiocy of his decision to publicly declare Judge Ellen Chaitin biased in favor of rapists — without a single shred of credible evidence to that effect. And I trust the mean-spirited, PC foolishness of demoting widely respected Assistant District Attorney Thomas “Tippy” Mazzucco is still fresh in your minds.
But I can't stop wondering about these ex parte communications with judges. Take this latest one. A gang lord is shot dead on Union Street a few minutes after Hallinan's pal, defense attorney Dennis Natali, is murdered a few blocks away. Natali used to represent the murdered gang lord, so there is a reasonable belief that the two killings are connected. Reasonable belief, but no substantive evidence.
After a jury is impaneled to hear the murder case — which does not include any charges related to the Natali murder — Hallinan pops off in the press that he believes the defendants are guilty of murdering his friend, too. This causes an almost instantaneous mistrial. A prosecutor simply can't poison the jury with an unverified charge and expect the trial to go on.
This type of public speculation on a case-in-progress is not an oops. It's almost as big a screw-up as there can be in the criminal justice system.
And then, after causing a mistrial, Hallinan decides to walk into the chambers of the judge overseeing the case, William Cahill, without notifying the defense. There, Cahill says, Hallinan tried to show the judge a letter about the case the district attorney was writing to a newspaper. This move was so obviously improper — simple fairness and basic legal canons dictate that the defense and the state must be present at each stage of a criminal prosecution — that Cahill, recently selected in a San Francisco Examiner survey of attorneys as one of the best judges on the local bench, was forced to pull the DA's Office off the case and call in the state attorney general to try the matter. [page]
This, also, is no small matter. A gangland murder trial has been taken out of the hands of the DA's best trial lawyer and homicide prosecutor, Al Giannini, and handed over to state lawyers who rarely see the inside of a courtroom. All because something is apparently deeply wrong with our district attorney.
This is hardly Hallinan's first unethical attempt at ex parte communication. His first came in 1996 when he walked into Superior Court Judge James McBride's courtroom to complain about a ruling in a case against a Catholic priest accused of embezzlement. As reported then, McBride, who was hearing another case at the time, literally kicked Hallinan out of his courtroom. The second ex parte communication occurred when Judge Chaitin dismissed a rape case due to lack of evidence. Hallinan stormed into her courtroom and, despite Chaitin's repeated pleas to cease his unethical conduct, persisted in talking about the case.
Hallinan, who is a Democrat, took to the press again last week, implying that Cahill, who is a Republican, was motivated in his actions by partisan ideology.
But this is incorrect. Cahill is acting with the deliberate reason one would expect from any seasoned jurist and top-notch lawyer. And Hallinan is exhibiting the behavior one might expect from a reckless idiot, or a troubled egomaniac.
George Cothran (firstname.lastname@example.org) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,