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Carmen Trutanich, L.A. City Attorney, Tramples the Rights of Pot Smokers, Street Artists and Protesters

Carmen Trutanich pledged to serve eight years as city attorney before running for Congress or the district attorney's office. Three years later, he's running for DA.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

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."

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.

After the ruling, the City Attorney's Office offered a plea deal to Goukassian. If he pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace, he would serve no jail time and would not be fined. As long as he stayed out of trouble, his record would be wiped clean after a year. He even got his $3,000 back.

"Their case fell apart," Rubel says. "They made a big deal out of these cases and then ran away from them."

As for the case against Forchion, it lingered until last October, when a state appellate court struck down an ordinance in Long Beach that is similar to the one in Los Angeles. Trutanich's office decided it could no longer defend the law and dropped charges against Forchion and two other dispensaries. Trutanich's effort to put dispensary owners behind bars ended in complete failure.

"They just folded," Forchion says.

Trutanich has a slightly better record of fighting medical marijuana in civil court, if only because most dispensaries have simply closed when threatened with litigation. But in the only civil case yet to reach a jury, against Buds on Melrose, Trutanich lost. The dispensary is still open for business.

Trutanich now is trying to get the City Council to ban medical marijuana completely.

"He's smart enough to see it as a problem but not smart enough to regulate around it," says the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance's Sarah Armstrong.

For now, the legal environment around medical marijuana is messier than ever (see our Feb. 18 cover story, "L.A.'s Pot Prohibition Playbook," by Hillel Aron).

District Attorney Steve Cooley, who has had more luck than Trutanich prosecuting dispensaries under state law, continues to pursue criminal cases. Enforcement seems to be at the whim of individual City Council members and LAPD captains. Meanwhile, dispensaries open every week in defiance of the city's ordinance.

Trutanich has complained about the scores of suits that have been filed against the city, but marijuana activists blame Trutanich for failing to work with the industry. In the meantime, Trutanich's confrontational approach has eaten up resources that could have been spent on other things. Last year, Trutanich told the Sherman Oaks Patch that 20 deputy city attorneys are working on marijuana cases.

Even some within the office openly question whether that's a wise use of attorneys' time.

"Staffing has gotten very thin," says Phil Sugar, a veteran in the City Attorney's Office. "Putting marijuana at the top priority is probably not energy well spent."

Trutanich assigned as many as 18 lawyers — in both his criminal and civil divisions — to go after illegal billboards and supergraphics, which had sprouted up all over the city in the previous decade. The criminal attorneys were unusually aggressive. Instead of mailing notices, they sought arrest warrants. In one infamous case, they locked up a building owner, Kayvan Setareh, on $1 million bail.

"If they commit a violation of the law for a monetary motive, they should be subjected to jail time like everybody else," says Bill Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy. "The purpose of jail sentences is for deterrence."

But in court, the supergraphics industry has fought Trutanich to a standstill. The City Attorney's Office has filed 52 criminal cases against property owners, sign installers and billboard executives. To date, none of them has been sentenced to jail. Despite extraordinary efforts from Trutanich's office, only three people have pleaded guilty to sign-ordinance violations; all of them got probation. (Another five corporate entities also entered pleas.) Most of the cases — 38 — are still pending.

One of those is the case against Setareh, who had rented out the side of a building he owns in Hollywood to a supergraphics company, which hung a large advertisement for the movie How to Train Your Dragon. His attorney, Andrew Stein, says Setareh was unaware there was a problem until a team of officers stormed his home in the Pacific Palisades and hauled him off to jail — where he was held on $1 million bail.

In a statement, Trutanich warned, "The days of lax and inconsistent enforcement of billboard and outdoor advertising laws in this city are over."

It was great political theater. But as a legal matter, Trutanich had overstepped. There are only a few legal justifications for setting bail — for example, if a defendant is a flight risk. "Sending a message" isn't one of them.

Trutanich's legal argument rested entirely on the notion that the signs posed a threat to public safety: that they were fire hazards, and that they could fall to the ground and kill pedestrians. Never mind that the city had signed off on permits for supergraphics just like Setareh's at other locations, including Staples Center.

Stuck in jail, Setareh was in no position to argue. As a condition of his release, he agreed to have the sign taken down.

Several months later, other supergraphics defendants did argue the point, and won. After a seven-day bail hearing, Judge Greg Dohi refused to order that the signs be taken down and set bail at just $10,000.

"The bottom line is that the people have failed to show that the risks associated with flammability, fire spread and smoke rise to the level of imminent danger," Dohi ruled.

Setareh had spent three days in jail on a false premise.

"This case has left a terrible taste in my mouth about how justice is dispensed in that office," says Stein, Setareh's attorney. "It's political now." He calls Trutanich "a bully." Setareh's trial is set for next month, and he faces a fine at most, Stein says.

Trutanich has had victories. Thanks to an appellate ruling in the city's favor in 2010, most of the illegal signs have been taken down. And last year, CBS Outdoor agreed to a $4 million settlement in a supergraphics case. But he can just as easily overplay his hand.

Trutanich has been trying to extract millions of dollars in civil penalties from Mark Denny and his co-defendants, including Barry Rush, owner of Worldwide Mediacom. Last year, Denny's attorney made a settlement offer of about $40,000. Trutanich rejected it as far too low.

So instead, the defendants settled the case with Caltrans, which also has authority to pursue illegal billboards that crop up next to freeways. Under that agreement, the defendants paid $218,000 to the state.

Last month, a judge threw out the city's lawsuit, ruling that its claims had already been settled thanks to the state fine. Trutanich's office has vowed to appeal. But as it stands, the city seems likely to end up with nothing.

Rocky Delgadillo's signature issue was gang violence. When Trutanich took office, he looked for a way to make the issue his own. The result was a crackdown on graffiti, which nicely combined two of Trutanich's obsessions: counterculture and signage.

Where others saw a nuisance — or even an art form — Trutanich saw a threat to public safety. He added graffiti cases to the gang section's duties, putting experienced gang prosecutors on the trail of street artists.

The move coincided with growing appreciation for street art in the mainstream art world. Some street artists were giving up illegal graffiti in favor of gallery shows. A clash was inevitable, and it came last year, during "Art in the Streets," a landmark show at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"I have no problem with legitimate art. ... I have a problem with graffiti," Trutanich said in a documentary about the show. "If somebody in that show has an outstanding warrant, chances are they won't finish the show."

As it happened, one of the artists did have an outstanding warrant. Revok, whose real name is Jason Williams, says he stopped doing illegal graffiti in L.A. several years ago, when he launched a professional art career. But he says the Sheriff's Department and Trutanich have continued to harass him anyway, looking for technical offenses to violate his probation and send him back to jail.

"He's not gonna allow any of us to have a legitimate career," Revok says.

He adds that the Sheriff's Department has followed him on Twitter, shown up to his art shows and raided his home several times. On one occasion, he was arrested for possession of graffiti tools, which counted as a probation violation even though, in his case, they're also tools of his trade. (While he was in custody, he says, investigators pressed him for information on other street artists — Roger Gastman and Shepard Fairey — who have successful legitimate careers.) When Revok failed to show up to court or pay restitution on the charge, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

About a week after the opening of "Art in the Streets," Revok was planning to leave Los Angeles to complete a commissioned work in Ireland. Sheriff's deputies arrested him at LAX, booking him on $320,000 bail.

He was sentenced to 180 days in jail. He ended up serving 45 days due to overcrowding.

"Every day you're in jail, your life in the real world is falling apart," Revok says. "It fucks your life up. I'm not gonna sit here and piss and moan and cry for doing time for a crime. But I didn't commit any crime."

He calls it "absolute harassment."

Revok has since moved to Detroit to avoid further run-ins.

"Revok is not a dangerous, violent felon. He's an artist," says Saber, a fellow graffiti artist. Saber believes he's putting himself in jeopardy by criticizing Trutanich. "This man specializes in intimidation, focuses on low-hanging fruit and has no problem using city funds to facilitate his personal vendettas."

Trutanich boasts of pursuing a "first-of-its-kind" injunction against the MTA tagging crew, which is most famous for a quarter-mile-long tag on the banks of the L.A. River. Modeled on gang injunctions, which are civil court orders aimed at keeping gang members from controlling particular neighborhoods, the MTA injunction seeks $4 million in restitution for cleanup costs.

Smear, an MTA crew member accused in the complaint, says he has given up vandalism in pursuit of a gallery career. But Trutanich's injunction seeks to make that impossible.

If a judge signs off on the injunction, it would bar Smear from selling photos of his work to collectors, on the grounds that his so-called criminal behavior gives him an unfair business advantage over other artists. The injunction also would prevent MTA members from meeting with each other or possessing spray cans.

The ACLU, which is fighting the injunction, calls it "unquestionably unconstitutional."

Many fear it will get worse if Trutanich becomes DA. Says Revok: "I really hope this bastard doesn't get elected."

Yet even as Trutanich has gone full-bore after street artists, he has eased off on actual street gangs.

In the last two and a half years of Delgadillo's administration, the city obtained 10 gang injunctions. During the first two and a half years of Trutanich's term, the city has obtained just four — two of them mostly completed on Delgadillo's watch.

"We're not doing as many gang injunctions as we used to," Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy, acknowledges. "When you have limited resources, you can't devote your prosecutors to writing injunctions."

The office also is prosecuting fewer gang members. Trutanich is running for DA on a promise that he will "never back off" on gang crime. But since he took office, gang convictions are down 31 percent.

A prosecutor can get away with a lot if he picks the right enemies. Trutanich has drafted off public anger against Wall Street in cases against Deutsche Bank, for failing to maintain foreclosed homes, and Northern Trust, for investing pension funds in risky securities.

Neither lawsuit has been tested in court. But he keeps framed news clippings about the Deutsche Bank case in his office lobby, and has already used the lawsuit in his campaign for DA. In a campaign video, Trutanich drives past blighted homes, and says, "We're going after these banks, to force them to become accountable for what they're doing in these neighborhoods."

But Trutanich also can pick the wrong enemies. His worst miscalculation was his fight against nonviolent political demonstrators. In the wake of several protests in 2010, Trutanich initially sought yearlong jail sentences against what he called "professional protesters" for failure to disperse. When the protesters fought back in the L.A. Times, Trutanich quickly reversed course. Most protesters were given deferred sentences.

When the Occupy L.A. movement seized control of the City Hall lawn last fall, Trutanich's initial response was more muted, at least in public. All he would say was that protesters should "follow the law."

After the camp was cleared, however, Trutanich threatened to sue Occupy L.A. to recover the city's costs. He also charged 50 demonstrators criminally and offered others lighter sentences if they agreed to sit through a class on the First Amendment.

"The goals of Trutanich have stayed the same," says Garrick Ruiz, a protestor charged by the city attorney in 2010, "which is to figure out how he can punish people as strongly as he can for any kind of political activity."

The powers of the city attorney are limited. But even before his election, Carmen Trutanich sought to expand those powers, with an eye toward higher-profile cases and investigations of his fellow politicians.

In 2005, he took a break from private practice to work as an adviser to Rocky Delgadillo. His main accomplishment was to create a proposal for a Bureau of Investigation within the City Attorney's Office.

The city attorney has investigators who perform tasks such as tracking down witnesses and serving subpoenas. But Trutanich wanted something more than that: an investigative agency that would pursue cases LAPD either couldn't or wouldn't.

In a document presented to the City Council in 2005, the City Attorney's Office argued, "The need is especially critical in the areas of elder abuse, fraud and corruption cases."

The idea went nowhere. But then, in 2009, Trutanich campaigned for the office on a promise to pursue corruption.

"We're going to prosecute misdemeanor ethics violations by politicians," Trutanich told the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, as journalist Ron Kaye reported on his blog. "We're going to change the way politics is played in the City of Los Angeles." (To date, Trutanich has not prosecuted an ethics case.)

Upon his election, Trutanich immediately revived the Bureau of Investigation. But he was never able to fund it fully, and it has done relatively little.

In 2010, he tried a different tack. He asked the Legislature to give him authority over a criminal grand jury. Under the proposal, Trutanich would be able to launch investigations and subpoena both records and witnesses — without getting a judge's blessing first. In essence, it would have allowed him to fish for information instead of waiting for instances of wrongdoing in which he had probable cause.

The effort failed. After it was widely interpreted as an attempt to pursue an investigation of Councilwoman Jan Perry and AEG, Trutanich agreed to delete "corruption" from the list of powers he could pursue, only to see the bill die anyway.

After that defeat, Trutanich came back the next year. He sponsored a bill that gave his investigators the power to wear wires and record phone conversations without the other party's knowledge.

City attorneys could already do that, so long as they first got permission from the district attorney. But Trutanich wanted to eliminate that check on his power. The bill, which garnered little attention, sailed through and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October.

Assemblyman Warren Furutani, who carried the bill despite opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union, calls it "another tool in his toolbox."

For Ignacio Hernandez, a lobbyist for the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which opposed the bill, it was further evidence of the city attorney's "inferiority complex."

"They want to have as many powers and tools as DA's, even though they're not," Hernandez says.

The last city attorney in Los Angeles who didn't chase headlines was Jim Hahn. Before he was mayor, Hahn served 16 years as city attorney — something that, thanks to term limits, would be impossible today.

The deputies who are old enough to remember those days recall them fondly, especially in light of what came next.

"I believe the entire problem with the politicization of these offices is due to term limits," says Phil Sugar, the veteran deputy city attorney. "What's happened to our office is it's become a stepping stone."

Trutanich has occasionally tried to downplay his tough-guy image. In an interview with the Weekly last year, he maintained, "I'm not a thug."

But another part of him seems to revel in that reputation. In his office, Trutanich keeps a wooden plaque that reads, "The strong do as they will, the weak do as they must."

The plaque used to hang in a gym in Harbor City where Trutanich worked out, says John Franklin, his communications director. When the gym closed, the owner gave it to him.

The line, from Thucydides, is an unusual one for an officer of the court to have on display. It refers to an argument the Athenians made before crushing the weaker city-state of Melos. The Melians pleaded for mercy and justice, but the Athenians responded, essentially, that justice had nothing to do with it: We will crush you because we can.

Most readers see this as a stomach-churning display of realpolitik, one that ultimately led to the Athenians' comeuppance. Trutanich takes it as an inspiration.


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