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Minor Deceptions 

Can Steve Cooley win the big one at City Hall?

Thursday, Jun 10 2004
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A political-corruption scandal is not unlike the NBA season. It’s fun when it starts, but a couple months later it feels like it’s been dragging on for a lifetime. Just before you lose interest completely, though, the whole thing is expected to wrap up with a spectacular finish, a bit of frenzy and a certain amount of satisfaction that you stuck with it from beginning to end.

The money-laundering charges filed secretly last month against Los Angeles lawyer Pierce O’Donnell and seven personal and business associates hint at no impending final series in the city’s contracting probes, but seem instead like a foray in a whole new direction. In that sense they were unsettling and unsatisfactory. O’Donnell is charged (publicly, now) with reimbursing his friends and co-workers for their campaign donations to Mayor Jim Hahn so he could flood Hahn with money and avoid the $1,000-per-person spending limit. But he is not accused of doing it to snag lucrative city contracts.

“The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief that the very virtuous do?” wrote William Makepeace Thackery. The quote was cited a year ago in a Daily Journal column on moralist William J. Bennett’s gambling problems. Written by Pierce O’Donnell. “Trusted institutions have turned out to be corrupt,” O’Donnell wrote.

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After months of resignations from city commissions and from inside Hahn’s office, after scathing reports from City Controller Laura Chick and subpoenas to aides and staffers to testify in front of two grand juries, the O’Donnell charges appear to take us no closer to a conclusion of City Hall pay-for-play.

Los Angeles residents, or at least those few who are fans of political intrigue, are becoming hungry for convictions and prison terms. There has been too much written about corruption at the city’s Airport Commission and Harbor Commission. Someone has to go down for — allegedly — selling city contracts for political donations.

But that’s the thing about L.A. Unlike in other cities, where corruption probes follow a predictable arc and end with spectacular convictions or acquittals, political scandals here rarely seem to finish up. It’s as if the Lakers made it through the first round of playoffs, then got together with the other teams and the refs and agreed to divide up the title and the championship winnings among them without having to play the rest of the games.

Several years ago, Councilman Richard Alatorre was accused of squeezing thousands of dollars from an apartment owner in exchange for his silence about building-code violations. He was said to have gone to bat for a development firm bidding on a $65 million MTA contract, in exchange for a free new roof for his house. Federal prosecutors helped persuade him not to seek re-election in 1999. But he then got a $100,000-a-year state job.

He finally took to a deal that had him plead guilty to tax evasion but do without the yearlong jail term or the $20,000 fine. Instead, he got a few months under his new roof wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. None of that apparently stopped him from entering into a consulting contract with the Department of Water and Power.

Councilman Arthur K. Snyder pleaded guilty to money laundering, but an appeals court threw out the plea and his six-month jail term and ruled that he couldn’t be tried criminally. The state Supreme Court later reinstated the conviction, but instead of prison, Snyder, too, did a few months of home time with electronic monitoring.

But at least they were convicted. Over the years, various other elected officials in Los Angeles would mysteriously step down from office or not seek re-election. Rumors circulated about gentlemanly agreements with prosecutors, but nothing could ever be proved.

When Steve Cooley became district attorney, he said things would be different, and, in a way, they are. Convictions of local political bandits like Omar Bradley in Compton and Albert Robles in South Gate are unprecedented. But they were small fry. Aborted prosecutions of police officers in the Rampart matter and lack of charges in the Belmont public school fiasco began to look like the old L.A. way of doing things. Stop the bad stuff, quietly, and let everyone go home.

There was, at least, the prosecution of Cody Cluff, the Richard Riordan appointee who ran the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. like his own private racket, under the unseeing eyes of the L.A. City Council and county Board of Supervisors. But Cluff, who pleaded no contest to embezzling public funds, could end up with a scant 90 days.

 

Some are now grousing in Cooley’s office about the focus on the Public Integrity Division (PID). Prosecutors in other units are quietly questioning why the district attorney has placed so much emphasis on politically high-profile stakes while other matters are left without enough investigators, or resources, or attention from the top. ‰

“What has PID come up with other than headlines?” asks a beleaguered prosecutor in another division.

In an office of nearly 1,000 lawyers, PID occupies only eight lawyers and nine investigators. But to keep his own ranks happy, as well as to satisfy the public desire for spectacle and showdown, Cooley is under pressure this month to produce. Key hearings are due in June in the felony money-laundering prosecution of Casden Properties vice president John Archibald, who is charged with running an illegal campaign-donation ring among subcontractors, ordering them to pay Hahn’s campaign or the anti-secession movement, then reimbursing them. Classic campaign money laundering.

O’Donnell, too, will be brought before a judge this month, and although the charges he faces are misdemeanors, they could add up to 13 years in prison. Also appearing will be the office administrator for the O’Donnell & Shaeffer law firm, Else Latinovic, and her mother, Anita Latinovich; several secretaries, including Dolores Valdez, Hilda Escobar and Linda Fraser; attorney Neil Sacker; and O’Donnell’s personal trainer, David Bernstein.

Money laundering can be hard to prove. But sources familiar with the O’Donnell matter say there is a solid paper trail, unearthed by the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the City Ethics Commission, that makes the gregarious and politically connected litigator a sure target.

Cooley rejects any notion that the Public Integrity Division pulled up the O’Donnell matter because they were desperate for an easy win.

“The Ethics Commission developed information through one of their ongoing audits and reviews and brought it to us,” Cooley said, adding that once PID got the case, it had little choice but to proceed against O’Donnell.

Cooley said O’Donnell’s lawyers tried to condition cooperation with the Ethics Commission on a guarantee of immunity from criminal prosecution, but the District Attorney’s Office wouldn’t deal. It was perhaps a lesson learned from the Casden matter, in which one subcontractor charged with conspiring to launder money, Laszlo Furdek, was dismissed because it turned out that the indictment was based on testimony he gave to the Ethics Commission under immunity.

Cooley added that although his office has developed a good relationship with the city commission, he would prefer to get referrals earlier in the process. This one was filed just days before the statute of limitations was to run out.

The case is currently in the court of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg — a former member, by the way, of the city Airport Commission.

O’Donnell’s case may yet turn out to be a component in the larger City Hall corruption probe, rather than a mere distraction.

His firm apparently has not raked in any City Hall contracts. But it is not unconnected with local-government work. Although O’Donnell is best known as a fierce litigator in entertainment and environmental matters (he represented columnist Art Buchwald in his suit over the film Coming to America, and represents L.A. Weekly columnist Nikki Finke in her lawsuit against Disney), his firm also has won at least one sole-source contract with the Air Quality Management District.

O’Donnell is also no political novice. He ran for Congress in 1980, and was named by Daily Variety as a key Los Angeles backer of erstwhile presidential candidate John Edwards.

Still, there is that question of timing. A corruption probe may last longer than a basketball season, but there are limits. Action from the U.S. Attorney’s Office may just hinge on whether President Bush is re-elected in November, or is replaced by John Kerry — and a new, Democratic, federal prosecutor. To make a political splash, any indictments of commissioners or others in Hahn’s administration must come before the mayoral election the following spring. And Cooley has admitted thinking, at least, about a run for state attorney general in 2006.

For his part, Cooley insists that the prosecutions are unrelated to politics.

“These things have their own lives,” he says of the corruption probes. “We’re not result-oriented here. We’re process-oriented.”

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