Confronted with revelations that his office had not been enforcing the county's campaign finance law, District Attorney Steve Cooley had to figure out how to respond.

He took a three-pronged approach:

— Argue that the law was hardly ever violated, so it was no big deal.

— Argue that the law was flawed and unenforceable, so his hands were tied anyway.

— Call for a county ethics commission, which was so grand a solution that it was bound not to happen.

What ended up happening was essentially nothing, which seems to be what Cooley wanted. Asked recently how often the law is enforced, Cooley said, “Hardly at all.”

This is not for lack of violations. As L.A. Weekly reported two months ago, Cooley accepted $12,000 in contributions from employees and associates of Gladwin Gill. Six of those contributors later were identified as “conduits” whom Gill used to make excessive contributions to federal campaigns. The donations to Cooley were never investigated.

Cooley is the Republican candidate for attorney general, and has a five-point lead over his Democratic opponent, Kamala Harris, in the latest L.A. Times/USC poll. Harris' campaign has played up the Gill story, running a TV ad that emphasized Gill's criminal background and the wine-and-cheese basket he sent to Cooley as a Christmas gift.

When that story was reported, Cooley's spokesman said Cooley was unaware of Gill's “legal issues,” and added his office would have investigated if the case had been referred to the DA's Public Integrity Unit.

Maybe so. But a letter released this week under the Public Records Act suggests that Cooley was indeed aware of Gill's criminal history. Gill was convicted in the 1990s of participating in a real estate scam and for firing a gun at two Gas Company employees who went on his property to collect an unpaid bill.

The letter, dated July 25, 2007, suggests Gill sought Cooley's help in obtaining a pardon.

“Dear Dr. Gill,” Cooley wrote, “I recently obtained the enclosed form, 'How to Apply for a Pardon.' I am forwarding it to you for your consideration. I wish you the very best in this regard. Sincerely, Steve.”

Gill currently is serving time in the Metropolitan Detention Center, in downtown L.A., for violating federal campaign finance law.

As for the contributions to Cooley's campaign, Cooley's office never received a complaint about them because, unlike the City of Los Angeles, L.A. County does not monitor campaign donations looking for violations. The DA's Office under Cooley doesn't go looking for violations of the county campaign finance law, either, because the office wants to avoid the perception of political bias.

“We're not proactive,” says Dave Demerjian, the head of the unit, who adds that Proposition B has never been enforced. “It's not our policy to be proactive.”

That approach leaves a gap in enforcement that has existed ever since the voters approved the campaign finance law in 1996, and it has continued even after the L.A. Times reported in 2005 that the law was being ignored.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who proposed the law, was livid when that report came out. In his view, the DA “chose not to want to enforce this.”

“It came as quite a surprise to me that it wasn't being — forget it wasn't being enforced, it wasn't even being looked at,” Yaroslavsky said at the time. “It is kind of embarrassing to the county.”

Yaroslavsky drew up a motion to beef up enforcement. Cooley argued he couldn't do anything. As time went by, all that came out of it was that the Registrar-Recorder's office got some software to flag the most obvious violations.

Cooley didn't know about Gill's phony contributions because the system wasn't set up to catch him.

Cooley gets a lot of credit for pursuing public corruption. But in this case, he was given a chance to fix the system, and he punted. As a result, nobody knows how many others may have violated the campaign finance law and gotten away with it.

Kamala Harris bills herself as somebody who can fix broken systems. She touts her record as San Francisco district attorney, where she created the “Back on Track” program to rehabilitate first-time drug offenders and launched an initiative to combat truancy. She hopes to bring that systemic focus to bear on the state's desperately overcrowded prisons.

Those credentials might not be enough to overcome the decision she made in 2004 to not seek the death penalty for the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza. She had campaigned against the death penalty, and couldn't very well renege on her position once in office. But the way she handled the decision — announcing it before Espinoza's funeral — alienated his family as well as the entire police force.

Cooley has made that case, and Harris' opposition to the death penalty, the signature issue of his campaign.

That episode seems to have taught Harris a lesson in the virtues of caution. She now submits capital cases to a review panel before deciding whether to seek the death penalty. And defense attorneys who try cases in San Francisco say front-line prosecutors seem extremely cautious on cases that could cause trouble for Harris' political career.

“There's no discretion, it's ridiculous,” says Bill Fazio, a defense attorney who ran against Harris for district attorney. “San Francisco's supposed to be so liberal, but people are still going to jail for drug prosecutions.”

Tony Serra, an attorney famous in San Francisco for his defense of marijuana cases, says Harris has been more aggressive on such cases than her predecessor, which makes her somewhat conservative by the city's standards. He says he likes Harris personally, having tried one case against her when she was a trial DA.

“It's a bonding experience. In the old days, we'd say it's like dropping acid together,” Serra says. “She was honest. She was up-front. She had a lot of integrity.”

Some have doubts, however, that on the basis of her track record in San Francisco, Harris would be able to make strides toward fixing California’s prison system.

Jeff Adachi, the city’s elected public defender, notes the Back on Track program serves only 75 to 100 people at a time.

“It’s very limited in terms of the impact that it has on the war on drugs or incarceration,” Adachi says. “Any sort of reform is welcome. But in terms of radical, far-reaching changes, those are yet to be seen.”

Adachi faults Harris for her handling of the San Francisco Police Department’s crime-lab scandal, which broke earlier this year.

Ultimately, several hundred convictions were overturned because a criminalist admitted to stealing drugs. Adachi says Harris was slow to take action.

“It was very frustrating,” Adachi says. “Certainly all of this happened during the time her campaign was heating up. At the same time, the District Attorney’s Office was very slow to respond to what was a huge problem.”

Trailing in the polls, Harris got a shout-out last week from a very high-placed friend.

At his Oct. 22 rally at USC, President Barack Obama called Harris “a dear, dear friend of mine, so I want everybody to do right by her.”
Obama also appeared at a fund-raiser for Harris in the Bay Area.
Asked recently about Obama’s effect on the race, Cooley said, “I don’t care. I got my own friends.”

That turned out to be all too true, as a Virginia-based independent group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, dumped more than $1 million into attack ads against Harris, focusing on the Espinoza case.

The ad’s backers are thought to be motivated not by any great love for Cooley, but rather because they want to stop a potential rising star in the Democratic Party. It may stall her ascent, but it probably won’t stop her.

“If she wins, she will go for higher office,” Serra says. “If she loses, she’s going to go for higher office.”

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