Getting Even 

The bad blood between Gil Garcetti and his challengers

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000
Photos by Debra DiPaolo

The race for district attorney is an intensely personal joust between incumbent Gil Garcetti and two opponents who’ve run afoul of him. The sin of challenger Steve Cooley is persistent disloyalty to his boss, both in this election and the last. The animosity between Garcetti and challenger Barry Groveman stretches even farther back — to the mid-1980s — when Garcetti, before becoming the top prosecutor, maneuvered Groveman right out of the District Attorney’s Office. And while personal feuds matter little to voters, the nature of these rifts offers telling detail about the politics and style of the challengers and the incumbent.

Cooley’s bad blood with Garcetti is straightforward enough. Cooley, a prosecutor for 26 years, joined renegade head deputies to support fellow prosecutor John F. Lynch in his race against Garcetti in 1996. Despite a slow-starting campaign, Lynch stunned observers by coming within two-tenths of one percent of defeating the incumbent in a runoff.

At the time, Garcetti was weakened by the mishandled O.J. Simpson case and by disclosures about his favors to campaign contributors. But Lynch also benefited significantly from Cooley, who’d hosted a fund-raiser that brought in $50,000, while also networking his moneyed contacts in the Republican Party and the judicial-review boards that he’d served on as a Republican appointee.

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Cooley, 52, paid a price for his previous tilt with the boss, getting transferred early in 1997 from head deputy in the San Fernando Valley to running the welfare-fraud unit downtown. “To take a guy like that out of a command position, and to bring him downtown to be in charge of a small unit like welfare fraud is like taking you off the battlefield for a desk job,” said Lynch. “Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do in welfare fraud, but if you look at it historically, welfare fraud is not at the top of many wish lists, and it’s at the bottom of a lot.”

Nonetheless, Cooley’s gotten good reviews in the new post, as he has in previous positions, which leaves Garcetti, a Democrat, to focus on Cooley’s politics, labeling him a “right-wing, arch-conservative extremist.”

Cooley resists this label. Both he and fellow challenger Barry Groveman fault Garcetti over pursuing life sentences for repeat offenders charged with nonviolent crimes.

Cooley also opposes Proposition 21 — the latest tough-on-crime initiative — which targets juveniles. This Pete Wilson–backed measure would give prosecutors too much authority to try juveniles as adults, according to Cooley. “I do not believe in unchecked power by any part of government or any entity in the criminal justice system,” he said. “I’m a believer in the rehabilitative model of the juvenile court system.”

Garcetti said he’s personally against Proposition 21, but officially neutral — whatever that means. Groveman, an environmental attorney and a Democrat, said he’s voting for 21, but that he hasn’t endorsed it — whatever that means.

Cooley’s supporters mouth a steady mantra: Their man is a better administrator and more upright than Garcetti, and more experienced and trustworthy than Groveman. “Steve Cooley is smart and knows the office,” said Wilbur F. Littlefield, the longtime head of the county Public Defender’s Office, who retired in 1993. “And Steve Cooley does things. He doesn’t sit on his hands. Steve is highly thought of by the other people in the office.”

Groveman’s supporters question whether Cooley’s administration would be different enough from Garcetti’s to prevent future Rampart-like scandals. Cooley remains an old-fashioned law-and-order guy without much patience for the high-profile crime-prevention efforts launched by Garcetti, such as one that sends upper-echelon trial attorneys into schools for anti-truancy programs.

“I don’t think that’s our core mission,” said Cooley. “I personally believe we haven’t dedicated enough resources to public corruption, to organized crime. It’s like everything else Gil does — it’s calculated for positive press.”

If that traditional approach sounds too, well, Republican, the ballot offers the alternative of 46-year-old Barry Groveman. He brings, in his words, “an insider’s experience and an outsider’s perspective.”

That inside experience at the D.A.’s Office was from late 1984 to mid-1986, when Groveman served as special assistant district attorney to the newly elected Ira Reiner. Both men came over from the City Attorney’s Office, which does not handle felony prosecutions. Reiner immediately assigned Groveman to form a strike force on environmental crime and report directly to him. Except for several other appointees, everyone else reported to Reiner’s chief deputy: Gil Garcetti.

By most accounts, Groveman got diverse agencies to work together, including those that didn’t initially take environmental crime seriously. “Barry is a typhoon when he gets going,” recalled John Lynch. “And you need those kinds of energies to get something like this off the ground.”

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