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“Considering the district attorney was up against the best lawyers taxpayer money could buy, I’m very happy with their efforts,” De La Torre says. “Steve Cooley definitely had a role in making it happen. Knowing what I know about [Robles], I don’t think it’s over. But the D.A. is staying after it.”
It’s an appreciative, if not rousing, endorsement of the district attorney’s actions. De La Torre and a handful of other South Gate officials and hundreds of dedicated residents held firm while Robles was trying to run the town, long before the District Attorney’s Office entered the picture. Cooley’s deputies couldn’t get a jury to go their way on the alleged threats to kill and rape. Trial on charges of conspiring to violate election laws is still months off. But, De La Torre notes, the bottom line is that Robles is out of power.
“We rescued a city from being a Third World dictatorship being run by a despot and restored it to democracy,” Cooley declares.
The Public Integrity Division continues to sweep through small- and medium-sized cities across Los Angeles County, securing corruption indictments where previous prosecutors rarely looked. Former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley may be going to prison after his conviction last week for spending his constituents’ tax dollars to dress himself nattily for golf. Two other Compton officials were convicted as well. Candidates for city council and school-board posts in smaller cities have been prosecuted for lying about their eligibility to run.
Fighting corruption was exactly what Cooley said he was going to do when he defeated Gil Garcetti nearly four years ago in a November runoff. But his opponents, most of whom filed to run at nearly the last possible moment, like to point out that cleaning up small cities in the southeastern part of the county was not what Cooley was crowing about on the campaign trail in 2000. Los Angeles was then wading through the thickest part of the Rampart police corruption probe and the public-works fiasco that is the Belmont Learning Center, and Cooley gave both scandals a central place in his campaign. Under his watch, he said repeatedly, the county would get to the bottom of both Rampart and Belmont, and would probe deeply into allegations of government corruption at the highest levels.
“I give him credit for South Gate and those places,” D.A. challenger Carrick says. “But he let Rampart get away. He let Belmont get away. He let corporate criminals get away. He
doesn’t have the will to go after the big cases and get the convictions.” Inside Cooley’s office, deputies complain that their boss is vindictive, and that he transfers prosecutors to distant backwater offices if they cross him or try to stand up to him. Freeway therapy, they call it.
“It’s as bad as it was under Gil,” one disgruntled ex- supporter says. “You have to watch what you say. Hey — don’t use my name.”
He is territorial. A hallmark of Cooley well known to colleagues in other segments of the justice system is the letter, or the blistering remark at a lawyer’s group function, complaining of prosecutions or foot-dragging by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Or of probes that he believes cast doubt on the sufficiency of his work. When the Los Angeles County Bar Association asked him to get involved in a blue-ribbon panel to study changes to the justice system to make sure innocent defendants don’t plead guilty, for example, Cooley dashed off a snippy letter advising that further study “at this time is not warranted in view of the new programs my office has implemented.”
His strengths are his weaknesses. He is low-profile, avoiding the almost daily press conferences and national TV talk show appearances that Garcetti used during the O.J. Simpson trial to dig his own political grave. But that low profile could explain a poll that Pacheco says showed the district attorney’s name recognition hovering just over 20 percent. “No one knows who he is,” Pacheco says. “They say, Cooley who?”
He promotes a fair, even-handed use of prosecutorial tools and refused to follow his fellow Republican officials’ rigidity on Three Strikes. No one from Los Angeles County will go to prison on Cooley’s watch for stealing a slice of pizza. But, as one of few elected Republicans in Los Angeles County, he has not made it a priority to lobby the Republican majority in Congress, or the Republican president, or the Republican governor for resources for his county.
Projects he touts as accomplishments earn him critiques more scathing than his failures. Civic corruption, for example. He has done more than any single L.A. district attorney to crack down on corruption in the last 50 years, but that merely permits critics to complain that he hasn’t done enough, or that he goes only after the small fry. Cooley doesn’t seem to mind.