By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
By the time you read this, Steve Cooley may have paid up on the lunch he owes me. Or maybe not. He keeps going back and forth on whether he overstepped his bounds by sending armed investigators to serve a search warrant on me and my former colleagues at the Metropolitan News-Enterprise a year and a half ago. That warrant purported to give Cooley’s people power to search my newsroom in violation of federal law, but he denied it did any such thing. “I will take you out to lunch if that is the language as it applied to the MetNews,” Cooley told me recently.
He later conceded, without so much as taking a look at the warrant, that its scope was a mistake. Then he revoked his concession, saying he had every right to slap us with the document. And then he conceded again. And then he said he would turn the question over to Assistant District Attorney Sharon Matsumoto to look into.
The whole thing says a lot to me about Cooley, the first-term district attorney who is running for re-election in the March 2 primary. His affable nature compels him to give in and get along. His stubborn pride stands in the way. His review of the documents is cursory. His final response will be a careful report. “This isn’t a search warrant,” he asserts, holding up the document with the words “Search Warrant” at the top. “It only covers advertising,” he says, skating over the word “EDITING” in listing the areas of the office to be searched. He is exasperating. I like him. But I’m mad at him.
It’s a reminder of the knock against Cooley leveled by his five challengers, by defense lawyers, and by more and more deputies in his office. Cooley investigated political dirty tricks in the 2001 L.A. mayoral election and uncovered a scheme in which aides to Nick Pacheco, an ex-prosecutor-turned-city councilman and now a Cooley challenger, were involved in faking a recorded campaign phone call from Supervisor Gloria Molina. There was an investigation and a report — but no charges filed. In the Rampart police corruption probe, there was a report — but few convictions. In the Belmont Learning Center fiasco, the school site was declared a crime scene, the case was reopened, and there was a report — but no indictments.
“He can’t make anything stick,” environmental lawyer and Cooley challenger Roger Carrick says. “He doesn’t have the will to get the convictions.”
But to his opponents the most frustrating thing about Cooley is his refusal to admit defeat, disappointment or error. He waves off major setbacks with disarming words. No big deal. The failure to get a conviction of Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse? Twice? “We prosecuted the case,” Cooley declares. “And we did it quickly. We did it in record time. We went in front of the grand jury. These situations are always difficult cases.”
I’m glad he’s taking another look at the search warrant he served on my former newspaper, which led to a stare-down resulting in me and all of our reporters being tossed out of our office for several hours while at least nine of Cooley’s investigators numbered our desks and made preparations for a search under a warrant that included news notes and files. Our cars, even. I’m glad he’s being good-natured about the whole thing, since he hasn’t exchanged any words at all since the incident with his former friends, Roger and Jo-Ann Grace, the owners of the Metropolitan News. But it has taken him more than a year to even consider the possibility that his deputies acted improperly on May 2, 2002, when they included a newsroom as part of a probe into political corruption in the beleaguered working-class city of South Gate. An apology would be nice. An admission of error would be great. But I may have to settle for lunch.
In South Gate they love Cooley. Or, on second thought, they’re grateful. When they think of him.
Just ask Hector De La Torre, mayor of the largely Latino city southeast of Los Angeles that was held hostage until last year by political boss Albert Robles and a cabal of willing underlings. De La Torre clung tenuously for several years to a minority spot on a city council controlled by Robles, the elected city treasurer, as Robles threatened his political enemies with murder and rape and directed South Gate officials to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars — perhaps millions — on public relations campaigns and high-priced lawyers aimed at keeping his cohorts in power. Citizens leveled a recall campaign at the Robles team, but they were repeatedly put off by legal maneuvers.
Then, in late 2000, Cooley became district attorney and things began to change. Slowly, at first. But in South Gate, at least, it was a new day. Cooley established a Public Integrity Division to crack down on corrupt elected officials, and South Gate was the unit’s shot across the bow of L.A. politics. Robles was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, misappropriation of public funds and unauthorized use of a signature in a campaign ad. He and his council majority of three were recalled in January 2002, and South Gate, in the words of Robles’ vocal opponents, was finally free.