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To drive the point home, he signed a pledge to serve two full terms as city attorney. He vowed not to run for Congress or district attorney, and goaded Weiss to do the same. If he violated the pledge, he promised to give $100,000 to an after-school program and take out a full-page newspaper ad announcing "I AM A LIAR."
Soon after Trutanich was elected, he dove headfirst into the political arena. One of his first acts was to threaten criminal charges against sports and entertainment company AEG over the Michael Jackson funeral at Staples Center, a major player in downtown L.A. (Those threats went nowhere.) He inveighed against billboards and supergraphics. When Councilwoman Jan Perry raised objections to his crusade, he threatened to arrest her.
Less than two years into his term, Trutanich broke his pledge and started raising money to run for district attorney. Everything he had done as city attorney became potential campaign fodder — exactly what front-line deputies feared from the get-go. And, indeed, when Trutanich formally announced his candidacy for DA two weeks ago, he talked up his record as a tough prosecutor.
Trutanich turned down repeated requests from the Weekly over several weeks to be interviewed for this story, although his office did make attorneys available to discuss specific issues. (Last week, Trutanich finally offered to meet for an off-the-record chat, but the Weekly refused.)
He has made himself available to a few select outlets. In an interview on KPCC, he presented himself as the most qualified candidate in the race. "We forced the billboard companies to their knees," he bragged.
That kind of rhetoric turns off a lot of prosecutors in the District Attorney's Office, who worry that Trutanich will meddle with their cases for political reasons.
"We don't want to be thugs. We don't want to push people around," says one deputy DA. "We want to prosecute bad guys and we want to do it fairly. There's a feeling that Trutanich is the kind of guy who would use his position to abuse the power we have."
The tough-guy approach doesn't always work. Nowhere has Trutanich been more aggressive, or less effective, than in his fight against medical marijuana.
The medical marijuana community supported Trutanich's campaign, believing him to be more understanding of its cause than Jack Weiss.
But shortly after he was elected, Trutanich helped organize an ominous-sounding law enforcement training luncheon: "The Eradication of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County."
The problem for Trutanich was that the L.A. City Council — and the city as a whole — did not want to eradicate medical marijuana. They wanted to regulate it. (In 2010, 54 percent of Angelenos voted in favor of Proposition 19, the unsuccessful state measure that would have legalized marijuana.) So Trutanich's office drafted regulations that were virtually impossible to follow.
The city ordinance granted government access to patient medical records, without a warrant. It imposed burdensome requirements for record keeping and product testing. And it imposed criminal sanctions for anyone who failed to comply.
Dispensaries had no choice except to sue. But rather than wait to see what the courts thought of his ordinance, Trutanich started enforcing it, coordinating a series of raids on "noncompliant" dispensaries.
In July 2010, LAPD raided Liberty Bell Temple, a Rastafarian dispensary in Hollywood. Eight officers in helmets and bulletproof vests marched in, shotguns drawn. They arrested the owner, Ed Forchion, along with his girlfriend, and seized two pounds of marijuana and $7,000 in cash.
Trutanich's office charged Forchion with several misdemeanor violations of the new ordinance. According to Forchion's attorney, David Welch, the prosecutors first offered the maximum: six months in jail. The offer meant the prosecutors wanted a trial — and, to Welch, it was a clear sign of political motives.
"It was an attempt to scare other people into closing," Forchion says.
The same thing happened to Lev Goukassian, who operated Nirvana Pharmacy in Westwood. He was arrested, and the officers seized $3,000 in cash. When Goukassian went to court, the deputy city attorney offered him a plea deal: He, too, could do six months.
"Even the judge laughed at that," says Goukassian's attorney, Gregory Rubel. "The response from the [deputy] city attorney was, 'These are my marching orders. I don't agree with it. But this is what I've been told to do.' "
The marching orders changed, however, when Judge Anthony Mohr struck down major portions of the city's ordinance, including the parts that allowed for criminal penalties. In his December 2010 ruling, Mohr called Trutanich's raids "most troubling" because it was not clear that anyone had actually broken the law.