The first offer was ludicrous. Carmen Trutanich, the Los Angeles city attorney, had publicly vowed to get tough on the guys who hang giant, vinyl signs on the sides of buildings. Tempers were hot.
But two years in jail? For hanging some ads for Tropicana orange juice? Mark Denny couldn't believe it. He was convinced he'd been within his rights.
"I don't want to spend any time in jail," Denny says. "I have a family. I have a business. I have people I'm trying to employ."
The judge suggested that, if the charges could be proved, they might be worth a 30-day sentence — which, with early release, would come down to a long weekend.
Denny's attorneys thought even that was too much. This was, after all, a code violation — akin to building a fence a few feet too high or keeping chickens in your backyard. Supergraphics might be an eyesore, but the jails are crowded enough without putting guys like Denny behind bars.
But time failed to cool Trutanich's temper. When Denny's lawyers met with Jeffrey Isaacs, the deputy in charge of the criminal branch, Isaacs heard them out but said Trutanich would have to make the final call. And Trutanich was apparently in no mood to compromise.
"Mr. Trutanich was personally involved in these cases," Isaacs testified recently. "He felt jail time was appropriate."
And so the case, along with many others like it, is still dragging on.
"He's put me and my family through hell," Denny says. "It's all a political agenda. I happened to get tied into it, and I just can't get out."
Carmen Trutanich came into office vowing to "throw politics out the front door." But in almost three years as city attorney, he has repeatedly sought jail time for minor offenses that align with his political crusades. He's pursued sign installers like Mark Denny. He's tried to jail people who sell medical marijuana. He's gone after street artists and political demonstrators. At a time when most policymakers are trying to reduce the jail population, Trutanich's impulse is to lock 'em up.
Such high-profile crusades have become part of his sales pitch now that the 60-year-old Trutanich is running for district attorney. But the truth is that he has largely failed in his efforts to lock people up for these nuisance crimes — even as the manpower he's devoted to them has left fewer resources for more important cases. Records show, for example, that the City Attorney's Office under Trutanich has cut back on pursuing gang injunctions — a critical component of public safety — and has prosecuted far fewer gang cases than his predecessor.
Trutanich's critics point out that, while his office is limited to prosecuting misdemeanors, he's been obsessed with enhancing his powers. He launched a Bureau of Investigation to pursue his own cases, rather than wait for local law enforcement to bring him its handiwork. He tried to get the Legislature to give him control of a criminal grand jury. And, in a little-noticed move, he got state law rewritten to let his investigators eavesdrop electronically.
Now Trutanich is after even more power. If he becomes district attorney, he'll be the top prosecutor in Los Angeles — able to launch his own investigations, influence policy and punish people with long prison sentences.
It's an idea that makes a lot of folks nervous.
"It would be truly scary with him in charge of the DA's office," says one of Trutanich's subordinates, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "This is an office that only does misdemeanors. You want him controlling death-penalty cases?"
When Trutanich was elected, in May 2009, the front-line deputies in the City Attorney's Office initially were relieved. Many felt that his predecessor, Rocky Delgadillo, was too much of a politician, and had turned the office into a vehicle for his own ambitions. Such wariness about politics runs deep in many veteran prosecutors; they know that public servants have the power to ruin people's lives.
"Unfortunately," says one deputy city attorney, "whenever you have an elected official for an office like criminal and civil enforcement, you never know if what the person is doing is in the interest of justice or in the interest of headlines."
Delgadillo's big issue was keeping children safe from gangs. Every time you turned around, he was reading to children in a classroom photo op. He had good reason to pose and posture: Facing a two-term limit, Delgadillo had his eyes on the state Attorney General's Office.
If anything, Trutanich's opponent for the open seat was thought to be worse than Delgadillo. Jack Weiss was a politician, an L.A. city councilman, and Trutanich hammered him for it.
A barrel-chested lawyer with a private practice in Long Beach, Trutanich had started out as a deputy district attorney, working in the environmental crimes unit before leaving the office to represent the sorts of polluters he had once prosecuted. He was a bit rough around the edges, and, at the time of the election, that seemed like a good thing. He was independent. Everywhere he went, he stressed, "I am not a politician."