By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Just look at the facts,” Cooley says. “They speak for themselves.”
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has nearly 1,000 lawyers, making it by far the largest local prosecutorial agency in the world. Few managing partners at private firms ever have to deal with the caseload, the egos and the budget crises that the D.A. here must handle. Gil Garcetti never let anyone forget the hugeness of his task. Cooley doesn’t seem to take much notice of it, brushing off the latest threatened budget cuts with the wave of a hand.
“Resources have actually been reduced,” Cooley says with an odd hint of pride. “We’ve actually done more with less. There’s probably nothing that isn’t somewhat smaller than when I came in. We’re over a 100 lawyers down, net. I’ve not hired one deputy D.A. since I’ve been here. Not one.”
That’s unprecedented. The District Attorney’s Office thrives on new blood. First-level hires, with their lower pay, often are more efficient prosecutors of low-level felonies, leaving the older, more experienced lawyers to handle the tougher cases. Cooley first lost his entire family support division, largely because of mismanagement under Garcetti’s regime, but allowed some of the lawyers in that spun-off unit to come back into the main office. A freeze on additional hiring means that today there is not a single first-year prosecutor in the office. There are many law clerks and assistants, but there is no money to hire them on once they graduate from law school and begin looking for full-time jobs.
Several aides to county supervisors express appreciation for Cooley’s understanding of the board’s budget straits, and his cooperation. But at least one is also puzzled by the D.A.’s stance.
“It certainly makes the board’s job easier when it comes to divvying up the scarce dollars,” the aide says. “But you would think his people wouldn’t stand for it. Gil used to come in here railing at us about programs he would have to cut. He probably did it so he could win favor from his own deputies, and everyone here knew it. But he fought. You have to wonder why Steve doesn’t do that.”
One of Cooley’s sharpest criticisms during the 2000 campaign was Garcetti’s elimination, for budget reasons, of a “roll-out” unit to investigate officer-involved shootings. There are plenty of other places to cut, Cooley said at the time, including crime prevention programs. He insisted that his job is to prosecute the cases brought in by law enforcement. Others should take care of prevention.
Four years later, Cooley touts his office’s crime prevention programs. A review panel last February endorsed seven programs left over from Garcetti’s regime, and Cooley is keeping them. Last June his office put out a hefty volume of materials warning of the dangers the Internet poses for children. It included advice to parents from Michael Josephson, head of an ethics institute. Also, he has expanded diversion programs throughout the juvenile court system, using money from three-year grants. “They work well,” Cooley says. “And they save you money in other areas, such as prosecutors in the courtroom, which you then keep in place. It’s the most efficient way to use your resources.”
Carrick charges that Cooley eliminated his entire environmental crimes and domestic violence units, but Cooley responds: “Absolutely wrong. We didn’t eliminate anything.” The truth is somewhere in between, but leans toward Carrick’s stance. The environmental crimes division was closed early last year, although an environmental law section remains part of the Consumer Protection Division that also handles antitrust, criminal profiteering, and high-tech crimes. Domestic violence remains — but only downtown. In the more than 30 so-called branch courts around the county, domestic violence cases are handled by non-specialist prosecutors who handle other types of cases much of the time.
Cooley readily admits that he was elected in 2000 more because voters were tired of seeing and hearing Gil Garcetti, and tired of reading about muffed high-profile cases, than they were excited about the challenger. Cooley knew what voters wanted to hear, and that was that he was a different kind of prosecutor than Garcetti. The incumbent, a Brentwood resident who hobnobbed with L.A.’s rich and powerful, wore hand-tailored suits and seemed always ready for his on-camera close-up. Cooley,
a former reserve cop and son of an FBI agent, was boisterous but refreshingly frumpy. He promised to give “fresh eyes” to a number of prosecutions that he charged had stagnated under Garcetti.
On his election, “fresh eyes” became a euphemism for assertions that Garcetti hadn’t been up to the task. “This ‘fresh eyes’ approach,” he said in countless press releases. His first major case was the so-called “Angel of Death,” Efren Saldivar, whose prosecution never quite got off the ground under Garcetti. Cooley’s “fresh eyes” garnered a conviction, he said. The campaign never ended. “This was going nowhere under my predecessor,” Cooley said at the time. “We looked at it with fresh eyes, and we got results.”