ON THREE: Death by Google

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By ELLEN ENDO

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”

—Albert Camus (1913-1960),
author and philosopher

Do city government computers have access to Google?

I ask this because in 2006, Los Angeles hired a department head and paid her a six-figure salary before thoroughly checking her out. With a simple Internet search, city staff would have learned key information — information that might have kept the mayor from making a costly mistake.

I was Rafu’s managing editor back then. News that a popular Japanese American city official had been fired by the city’s new Department of Transportation (LADOT) general manager, Gloria Jeff, was wafting throughout the community.

The JA official wasn’t just another bureaucrat. He got involved, he volunteered, and he supported community efforts whenever possible. The new LADOT chief must have said to herself, “Hmm, there’s a smart, energetic, dedicated guy in my department. (pause) I think I’ll get rid of him.” It didn’t make sense.

Asking around, I learned that Jeff had been a colleague of then-City Councilmember Wendy Greuel, who was also chair of the council’s Transportation Committee. A routine Internet search for Jeff’s bio revealed that she left her previous position as director of Michigan’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) in a bit of a hurry.

Michigan television correspondent and capitol blogger Tom Skubick reported what happened back in 2005: “The ex-MDOT director had lots of enemies in the (Michigan) Legislature and elsewhere but the last straw for (Gov. Jennifer Granholm) was when Jeff did a little freelancing behind the governor’s back regarding taxpayer expenditures at the Mackinac Bridge Authority.”

Skubick added, “The governor discovered, via the media, the mess Jeff was creating. Soon thereafter, Jeff was gone with no reasons given.”

So, the displaced Ms. Jeff headed for LAX, welcomed by Greuel and an optimistic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had wanted someone qualified to come up with a plan for reducing traffic congestion. Jeff’s resumé was stellar.

Greuel made sure Jeff landed on her feet. They knew each other from the Clinton Administration when Jeff was deputy administrator in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Greuel served as field operations officer in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Of course, there was no mention on the resume of Jeff’s special skill: Pissing people off.

L.A. activist Brady Westwater in his “L.A. Cowboy” blog on Oct. 5, 2007 chastised the media for failing to question Jeff’s past. He wrote, “I alerted local reporters…the very week she was hired and before she was confirmed. I was able to uncover horror story after horror story of mismanagement, contempt for the public … mistreatment of her staff and insubordination to the people who had hired her. But — somehow — the mayor’s staff missed all of this.”

Too bad Westwater wasn’t a Rafu Shimpo subscriber or he would’ve known that more than a year earlier, in July 2006, this newspaper reported on Jeff’s troubles back in Michigan. Shortly after The Rafu’s article appeared, two of the mayor’s staffers visited our offices, demanding answers. Who are you? How long have you been in business? How big is your circulation?

I loved telling these haughty young men — one African American, one Caucasian — that The Rafu is America’s oldest and largest bilingual Japanese daily and has been around since 1903. Had there been someone of Japanese ancestry on the mayor’s staff at the time, they could have just asked him (or her). Or, they could have emailed City Councilmember Jose Huizar, who was a Rafu delivery boy as a youngster along with his two brothers. I like to think that if they had told Huizar they were questioning whether Rafu was a legitimate newspaper, he would have texted: “Do your homework, fools!”

Instead, they stood there in front of my desk a little deflated. They did offer to pay the 80 cents for two copies of the issue containing the Jeff article. Not wanting our tax dollars spent that way, I gestured magnanimously. “That’s okay. No charge.”

Fast-forward 13 months later: On Sept. 28, 2007, the mayor’s office informed Jeff that she had until Friday afternoon to resign or she would be fired. On Sept. 29, Villaraigosa fired her.

If this all sounds familiar, it may be because a similar scenario occurred with Greg Willis and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center when Willis’ aggressive personnel changes reportedly created anxiety among some and prompted a community member to do a Google search on Willis. The Rafu staff took it from there, and details of his dubious past were uncovered.

What the Internet says about us is not the issue. Nor am I trying to applaud Rafu journalists for their tenacity and know-how, although they certainly deserve a pat on the back once in a while.

The problem is arrogance. We’re all guilty of it at times. Among politicians, it can be viral.

No one looked deeply into Jeff’s or Willis’ management style because it wasn’t important — except to those who had to work with these individuals. They looked good on paper, and that’s what mattered.

There’s a part of each of us that wants to believe what someone says about him or herself or what is on their resume because trusting your instincts can be scary. Ironically, we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we often make bigger ones.

In the Year of Snake, as we strive for renewal and resolve to shed old habits, let’s also commit to doing good things for the right reasons.

A Japanese proverb states, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” I must have fallen at least seven times in my life. If so, I am now on No. 8 and determined not to fall again.

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“Don’t be afraid to try something new. Noah’s Ark was built by amateurs. The Titanic was built by experts.”

–Anonymous

Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Rafu Shimpo or its management. Comments and/or inquiries should be directed to [email protected]

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