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
|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.
“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.
“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.”
Then he turned his fresh eyes to Rampart, a case he repeatedly branded “L.A. Confidential II.” He promised to “get to the bottom” of police crimes and malfeasance first uncovered when Officer Rafael Perez was caught by his superiors swiping cocaine from a Los Angeles Police Department evidence locker. There’s no question that fresh eyes were needed. Cooperation between the LAPD and Garcetti’s office had been minimal, and open warfare between the D.A. and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks peaked with a public statement from Mayor Richard Riordan telling the two men to stop acting like children.
But soon after the task force began doing its work, Cooley stopped using words like “fresh eyes” and started referring to the “so-called Rampart scandal.” Cooley today boasts of convicting nine police officers. But three of those convictions were thrown out by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor on her own motion. Cooley is appealing. He’s counting one officer twice — Nino Durden was convicted in both federal and state courts. Meanwhile, he claims credit for Rampart convictions won by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Almost all of the convictions obtained by our federal counterparts were a result of our efforts,” Cooley says, “so we really did the heavy lifting there. We were very, very thorough in getting LAPD to give us complete investigative packages regarding any of the allegations of corruption, as thoroughly analyzed by the assigned lawyer, Bill Hodgman, who’s an excellent head of the Ad Hoc Rampart Task Force. And we took it up a notch . . . We were looking for the patterns of corruption, to see how widespread it was, see if there were any linkages. And we did that. It’s in our Rampart report.”
Cooley promised that report in November 2001, during a rare press conference in which he unveiled “protocols” for reporting and investigating suspected criminal acts by police officers and other justice system officials. After making his announcement, a reporter asked about the Rampart probe, and Cooley fielded the query by declaring his office was ready to “close the book” on the corruption scandal.
It was another year before the release of the Rampart Task Force Report, which detailed 82 declinations to file. The report said crooked ex-officer Nino Durden “never implicated any other officer in criminal misconduct” besides himself and Perez. Defense lawyers who had seen transcripts of the Durden examination said the ex-officer named eight others who could be criminally prosecuted. They also blasted Cooley for failing to follow up with criminal charges against officers in the cases of more than 100 defendants who had to be freed after evidence surfaced that the police who testified against them may have lied. Cooley, meanwhile, has fought to support the convictions and notes that “we’re not buying into every convicted individual’s false claims.”
His take on Rampart: “I think it’s ended rather well, considering what a mess it was.”
The federal probe continues. The city Police Commission has established a new task force to get to the bottom of Rampart.
Cooley also promised to reopen the case of the Belmont Learning Center, a glorified high school just west of downtown that became, in the district attorney’s words, a “public works disaster of biblical proportions.” He seemed especially intent on finding criminal wrongdoing given the fact that Garcetti took a look and came up with nothing, as did state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Again, Cooley appointed a task force, and again, it came up with very little. As in Rampart, a report gathered dust for a year before the office released it. Only this time, his own troops fell into a divisive squabble over the contents. One result of the Belmont investigation: Roger Carrick, counsel to Los Angeles Unified School District Inspector General Don Mullinax, and longtime Deputy District Attorney Anthony Patchett, whom Cooley appointed to probe the matter, are challenging Cooley in the March 2 race. Both say Cooley blew the probe. The district attorney will have none of it.
“The Belmont work from this office is probably some of the best work ever undertaken,” Cooley says. “Everyone took a shot at Belmont. Garcetti. Lockyer. Hahn. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In my view all of their combined work, add it all up, put it in a stack, didn’t measure up to the ultimate product produced by my Belmont task force. I count Belmont a complete, major accomplishment for this office, in terms of following through on a promise. I said we’d get to the bottom of it, we got to the bottom of it. We published our report. It’s been on our Web site for a year or so. This is good work.”
You don’t bring charges in Rampart, in Belmont, or in anything, Cooley insists, if you can’t back them up. “If you’re a good D.A., an honest D.A., an ethical D.A., you don’t do it unless you believe . . . this evidence is sufficient to prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury,” he says. “After considering all plausible defenses, that’s it. If you can’t meet that
standard, don’t go to court. All you’re doing is wasting the taxpayers’ money and probably engaging in an abuse of your prosecutorial powers.”
He may have a point. It’s easy to brand the district attorney as a soft touch on crime when no one is indicted, but the criticism would turn to outrage if Cooley actually brought charges in a high-profile case and failed to get a conviction.
Or maybe not. The case of Inglewood Police Officer Jeremy Morse, who was caught on videotape slugging a handcuffed suspect, aroused a mere fraction of the public outcry sparked by the Rodney King tape more than a decade earlier. Even the successful celebrity cases raise little awareness of Cooley. The Winona Ryder shoplifting case drew worldwide media coverage, but little of it reflected, for good or bad, on Cooley. The board displaying high-profile cases in the D.A.’s media relations office lists a handful of famous people, like Robert Blake and Phil Spector, and some public officials, like former Entertainment Industry Development Corporation President Cody Cluff. Their names are seldom heard in the same sentence as Cooley’s. Nothing sticks to him. It could be that, unlike Garcetti and Ira Reiner before him, Cooley cares little for the spotlight. In a city in which politics is handled quietly, a quiet D.A. may have a certain advantage.
Cooley’s office slipped so completely under the radar that as of last summer, only one opponent, veteran prosecutor Tom Higgins, had made plans to run against him. Higgins was unhappy about being removed from his post leading the Abolish Chronic Truancy program. But he also is campaigning against what he calls Cooley’s too-lenient Three Strikes policy. That plays well with some people inside the office, but it doesn’t open up much ground for voters in a majority Democratic county to consider dumping the incumbent.
In the last week of filing , four others signed on. There were Carrick and Patchett, who feel burned on the Belmont matter, and Nick Pacheco, who worked as a deputy D.A. under Garcetti, was elected to the City Council, was investigated but not charged by Cooley in connection with the faked Gloria Molina phone call, and got ousted last year by Antonio Villaraigosa. Rounding out the field is Denise Moehlman, who sued the D.A.’s office for sexual harassment during Garcetti’s tenure, only to be slapped with an order to pay $15,579.57 in court costs and $111,462 in attorney fees. None of them will beat Cooley March 2. But there remains an outside chance that all of them, together, will deprive the D.A. of the 50 percent plus 1 that he needs to avoid a November runoff with the second-highest finisher.
I remember interviewing an unknown Steve Cooley nearly a year before he filed to take on Gil Garcetti, and writing a profile that quoted prosecutors and political wonks saying Garcetti’s time might finally be up and that this obscure career deputy might be the one to beat him. It was a bit of a kick when it actually happened, and Cooley thanked me now and again for doing the first story on him as a potential candidate.
The Metropolitan News-Enterprise covered, and still covers, the courts and the legal community, and my colleagues and I interviewed some of the principals in the South Gate matter in the course of preparing stories on arguments at the state Court of Appeal. When I showed up for work on the morning of May 2, 2002, I was planning to go over my notes and figure out what story to write, or to assign, on the continuing controversy. But I couldn’t get to them. All my co-workers were clustered on the sidewalk in front of the building, and my colleague, Kimberly Edds (now at the Washington Post), explained that investigators from Cooley’s office kicked everybody out after the paper’s editor, co-publisher and co-owner, Roger Grace, refused to comply with a search warrant that gave Cooley’s people the right to go through our desks. You could see them through the glass door, diagramming the office. Edds had to plead with them to let her back in to get her coat.
A three-hour standoff ensued. I found out later that co-publisher Jo-Ann Grace had talked to Cooley’s people some weeks earlier and told them she would be happy to turn over the document they were seeking — an advertising order for a legal notice that apparently was to launch a recall effort by Albert Robles against his political foes — if they just brought her some kind of legal process, like a subpoena.
But instead of a subpoena Cooley’s people arrived with guns and a search warrant that listed, among the places to be searched, the files, desks, vehicles, trash containers, purses, wallets and other areas of “ADVERTISEMENT, ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE” — so far, no problem, as far as I’m concerned — and “EDITING.” There’s the problem. As associate editor of the paper, I — and my staff — could have been subjected to a search in violation of 42 U.S. Code Sec. 2000aa, a law Congress passed to bolster First Amendment press freedoms after a search by police of the Stanford Daily in the 1970s.
Cooley continues to say there was no search, and that’s true, since Jo-Ann Grace turned over the document once it became clear the D.A. already knew the name of her advertising customer. But there was that warrant. Cooley says there was no intention to search, certainly not reporters’ desks. Maybe not. But then why go to the trouble of including “EDITING” in the scope of the warrant? And why keep my staff out of the building, away from their notes and files?
“This was a cordial, ‘come on down and pick up the evidence you want, it’s here, we’ll give it to you if you show us due process,’” Cooley told me recently. “That was exactly what was supposed to happen. It would have happened. The only part of the equation that was unpredictable was Roger Grace, interjecting himself in throwing a conniption fit and calling my people some very
foul names. In various different contexts. To their faces, over cell phones.”
Nearly two years later, I finally got Cooley to consider taking a look at his warrant. If I was right, he said, he would deal with his deputies for screwing up. And take me to lunch.
“If they did use that language, they were wrong, it was much too broad, and they should be spanked, or maybe they were lulled into it by Jo-Ann’s personality,” he said. “That language is much too broad.”
But there it is. He is almost admitting he was wrong — after 21 months, longer than the time the Rampart and Belmont reports were being polished in his office. His best qualities are also his faults. He’s persistent. Bull-headed. Affable, but hard to reason with.
Roger Grace is suing Cooley on behalf of the Metropolitan News for trespass, among other things, and is demanding compensation for the time his employees had to stand on the sidewalk instead of producing two daily newspapers. For me, it is enough that Cooley admit the warrant was improper, which he hasn’t quite done yet. By this point, the whole thing is a bit farcical — until I remember how my desk, and Edds’ desk, and those of my other colleagues, could be rifled by investigators who took over our office that May morning.
I still like Steve Cooley. I think he’s a pretty good district attorney.
But I’m still mad at him.