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
EVERY CRIMINAL DEFENDANT needs a good lawyer. Better if the lawyer is a close personal friend of District Attorney Steve Cooley.
The benefits of such coziness are described in an 11-page memo by a former Los Angeles prosecutor who resigned over what he considered to be questionable backroom deals that Cooley’s pal Robert Philibosian cut with the D.A.’s Office.
Cooley and Philibosian go way back. When Philibosian was the district attorney in 1984, he tapped Cooley as the youngest head deputy in the office’s history; he campaigned for Cooley in 2000; he emceed Cooley’s inauguration and worked on his transition team. Philibosian and Cooley own property together at Lake Arrowhead.
So what was Philibosian, a partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, doing in the middle of the recent campaign-money-laundering conviction of power lawyer Pierce O’Donnell? Or the Newhall Land & Ranch Co. environmental-crimes investigation? Or the investigation into allegations of corruption in the city of Cudahy? Or the Venoco oil-well-emissions investigation at Beverly Hills High School?
Former Deputy District Attorney Matthew Monforton raised questions about Philibosian’s influence with Cooley in two memos sent to Cooley’s director of fraud and corruption prosecutions. He got nowhere. His February 2005 memo, obtained by the L.A. Weekly, came on the heels of criminal charges against O’Donnell. Monforton was outraged that the D.A.’s Office, despite objections from the Public Integrity Division, agreed to a request by O’Donnell’s lawyers to seal the criminal complaint. This allowed O’Donnell to finish a trial he was handling. “I am informed by sources I consider reliable that O’Donnell’s team recruited Philibosian, who successfully lobbied members of this [office] for just such an [agreement],” wrote Monforton, who later resigned in protest.
O’Donnell pleaded no contest in June — the same as a guilty plea — to five misdemeanor counts of making campaign contributions to former Mayor Jim Hahn under false names. He was fined $300,000 and banned from making political contributions and contracting with the city for three years. But he ducked a jail sentence. By contrast, former councilman Art Snyder pleaded guilty in 1997 to nine misdemeanor counts of money laundering and conspiracy; he served six months in jail and paid a $216,000 fine. O’Donnell was represented by Sacramento lawyer George O’Connell, but sources familiar with his prosecution say he benefited from Philibosian’s involvement in a plea bargain that spared him jail time.
On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Juliet Schmidt confirmed that Philibosian was one of three lawyers who negotiated the deal. Schmidt defended the plea agreement, and characterized Philibosian as a stealth presence. “I never saw [Philibosian] in court and his name is not on any court papers,” she said. “But the sentence was harsh and there was nothing done wrong.” Reached at his Sacramento office on Monday, O’Connell objected to questions about Philibosian. He would not talk about the role that Cooley’s friend played in the O’Donnell case: “I couldn’t talk about that.” When the L.A. Weekly contacted Philibosian’s office this week, his secretary confirmed Pierce O’Donnell as a client. Philibosian did not return calls for comment.
Cooley’s office would not respond to written questions about its dealings with Philibosian, but agreed to make lead prosecutors in various cases available at a later time for interviews, to describe their interaction with the influential defense attorney.
The D.A.’s Office has had ample opportunity to rectify the conflict posed by Philibosian’s friendship with Cooley, according to Monforton’s memo. In 2004, Monforton got riled over Sheppard Mullin’s representation of the city of Cudahy. The firm was hired in 2001 to deal with a grand-jury investigation into whether former Councilman George Perez violated state law when he stepped down and was immediately appointed city manager by his peers on the council; no charges were ever filed. Details about the firm’s hiring quickly overshadowed the allegations facing Perez and his colleagues. Former assistant city manager Aurora Martinez testified that the city was not properly advised about a retainer agreement that allowed Philibosian’s firm to jointly represent both the city and its council members, who were under investigation. In general, elected officials have their own lawyer when there are allegations of public corruption. Yet a similar arrangement in the South Gate political-corruption scandal later caused Philibosian’s firm to pay $2 million in damages to that beleaguered city.
Monforton’s 2005 memo states that in Cudahy, Sheppard Mullin fraudulently secured waivers from city officials then racked up $1 million in legal fees — a hefty tab for Cudahy residents. “A retainer agreement executed by Philibosian formed the basis of [the firm’s joint] representation,” Monforton wrote to Richard Doyle, director of the D.A.’s fraud and corruption prosecutions, and Lael Rubin, head deputy district attorney in the appellate division. Former head deputy district attorney George Palmer initially agreed with Monforton that the joint representation looked fishy and should be referred to the state attorney general, the memo states. But nothing was done.
Palmer, now retired, did not return calls for comment. But former veteran Los Angeles prosecutor Roderick Leonard, one of Monforton’s colleagues, recalls a failed attempt to disqualify Sheppard Mullin for not securing a valid waiver to represent both the city and its council members. After five years, the ruling still doesn’t sit right with Leonard, a statewide legal-ethics expert now in private practice.