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Cooley's Blind Eye 

District attorney accepted laundered campaign money while prosecuting Democratic contributors for same offense

Thursday, Aug 26 2010
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In 2003, District Attorney Steve Cooley had a billionaire in his sights. Alan Casden was a real estate developer with a history of generosity toward political campaigns, especially those of local Democrats.

After a grand jury investigation, Cooley brought felony charges against a Casden executive, John Archibald, and 13 other defendants for reimbursing friends and associates for donations to city politicians, thereby violating contribution limits.

Casden was not indicted, but Cooley announced that he was a target of the investigation.

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"This is a person used to manipulating the system," Cooley told the L.A. Times. "What he's not used to is a tough D.A. enforcing the laws."

At the time of the investigation, however, Cooley was accepting the same kinds of contributions for his own campaign. While he pursued Casden and others who engaged in similar finance schemes, he did not go after his own contributor, Gladwin Gill.

Gill is a Pakistani immigrant who runs a small, Glendale-based home-health agency specializing in hospice care. He is also a twice-convicted felon who is about to enter federal prison for campaign-finance fraud.

Gill's scheme was essentially the same as Archibald's: Gill reimbursed his relatives and employees for contributions to George W. Bush's re-election campaign. In 2008, he pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of campaign-finance fraud and was sentenced to a year in prison.

But Gill and many of those same phony contributors also gave to Cooley's re-election effort in 2003 and 2004. Cooley's office would be responsible for investigating phony contributions to a local campaign. But the contributions to his own campaign were never investigated or prosecuted.

Cooley is the Republican nominee for attorney general. He has a narrow lead in the polls over his Democratic opponent, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.

A Field Poll conducted in July also shows that Cooley has a favorable rating among likely voters, even among Democrats, while Harris has an unfavorable rating. In an effort to play up Cooley's negatives, the Harris campaign has taken an aggressive turn in the past couple weeks, releasing a radio ad that bashes Cooley for accepting gifts of cognac and Lakers tickets. But Cooley had listed them on his disclosure reports, and the gifts did not exceed legal limits.

Responding to the Gill case, Harris' campaign manager, Brian Brokaw, is quick to accuse Cooley of engaging in selective prosecution.

"Californians deserve an attorney general who enforces and applies the law with an even hand, not someone who appears to turn a blind eye to violations of the law when they're committed by friends or donors," Brokaw says.

David Demerjian, the head of the D.A.'s Public Integrity Division, says his office has never received a complaint about Gill's contributions.

Kevin Spillane, Cooley's campaign strategist, says the D.A. "was not well acquainted with Mr. Gill and was not aware of his legal issues."

"The Public Integrity unit is an autonomous and independent operation," Spillane says. "If there had been a complaint filed, there's no doubt the Public Integrity unit would have pursued it."

State law makes it a misdemeanor to violate campaign-finance limits by using "conduit" or "straw" contributors.

But prosecutors bumped the Archibald case up to a felony by including a conspiracy charge. That charge was later dropped in a plea agreement, in which Archibald and 14 co-defendants agreed to plead to misdemeanor offenses and accept probation and pay modest fines.

Casden was never charged, and he filed with the State Bar a complaint against Cooley for naming him as a target of the probe.

At the time of the plea agreement, Cooley defended his zealous pursuit of the case. "The overall scheme was serious and sophisticated, and I think that was reason alone to file it as a felony at the outset," he told the Times.

Six months after charging Archibald and his associates, Cooley went after Pierce O'Donnell, an entertainment lawyer who is prominent in Democratic campaign-finance circles. Like Archibald, O'Donnell was accused of using straw contributors to launder donations to a local campaign — in this case, to the 2001 mayoral bid of James Hahn.

Seven others were charged with participating in the plot, including O'Donnell's secretary, his personal trainer, his office administrator and the administrator's mother.

Those charges ultimately were dismissed. Twenty-one of the 26 misdemeanor counts against O'Donnell were also dropped. He pleaded no contest to five counts, and received probation and a $155,000 fine.

"This was an important case in the overall effort by the D.A.'s Office to ensure integrity in Los Angeles city government elections," Cooley said in a statement. "Part of our job is to assure an even playing field in electoral campaigns."

O'Donnell also faces federal charges for using straw contributors to contribute to John Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign.

By contrast with O'Donnell and Archibald, Gill has confined his political giving to Republicans. Over the last several years, he has given $129,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee; $22,000 to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; $10,000 to the California Republican Party; $10,000 to the L.A. County Republican Party Central Committee and many thousands more to various Republican candidates and causes.

In 2004, Gill contributed the maximum $1,000 to Cooley's re-election campaign. Eleven employees of St. Ann's Hospice or its affiliate, the Shalom Foundation, also contributed the maximum. Six of those contributors were identified in the federal case as conduit contributors to Bush's campaign, as well as to the U.S. Senate campaign of Rosario Marin.

In the federal charging document, the contributors are identified by their initials, along with the date and amount of their contributions. Their full names can be discerned by checking them against publicly available campaign-finance reports.

In total, Gill acknowledged making $67,000 in phony contributions to four federal campaigns, from 2003 to 2005. He was sentenced to a year and a day in federal custody and ordered to pay a fine of $200,000.

Both the case's federal prosecutor and Gill's defense attorney say they were unaware of any violations on the local level. The prosecutor, Dennis Mitchell, says it would be up to local authorities to prosecute such offenses.

Asked about the contributions to Cooley's campaign, Gill declined to comment. "What benefit do I have in having a phone call with you?" he asked, before hanging up.

Gill's sentence was relatively harsh, in large part because of his prior record. According to a pre-sentencing memo filed by prosecutors, Gill pleaded guilty in 1995 to participating in a real estate–fraud scheme that bilked 20 investors of more than $1 million.

He also was convicted for firing a gun at two Gas Company employees who had entered his property to collect on an unpaid bill in the amount of $1,100. Gill said he had emptied his gun in an effort to scare off the intruders.

He was sentenced to five years in state prison for the crimes and served more than two years.

In his sentencing memo, Gill's attorney Marc Harris described him as an immigrant success story: He started as a New York taxi driver and worked his way up to a PhD in clinical psychology. Gill also is a contributor to many charitable causes and was moved to make political contributions by his fervent patriotism, attorney Harris wrote.

"In his zeal to participate in a political process in this country that has been so good to him, he got carried away. His misguided efforts to participate in the political process and to support his president were wrong and they were illegal, but they were not sinister."

Like O'Donnell's attorneys, Gill's lawyers have argued in court that such violations are often not prosecuted, and generally are handled administratively — if they are punished at all.

In addition to the contributions to Cooley's campaign, Gill's generosity extended to the district attorney himself. Just before Christmas 2004, Gill sent Cooley a wine-and-cheese basket. According to Cooley's financial-disclosure statement, the gift was worth $130.

Reach the writer at gmaddaus@laweekly.com

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