D.A. Steve Cooley has launched his grand jury inquiry into Assessor John Noguez. The L.A. Times has been staking out the proceedings, and reports today that prosecutors appear to be looking into whether Noguez received contributions from straw donors during his 2010 campaign.
The scheme is fairly simple: To get around campaign contribution limits — $1,000, in this case — contributors recruit their friends, relatives, or employees to donate, and then reimburse the contribution.
It's not an uncommon arrangement. What would be unusual is filing charges against the candidate himself for accepting such contributions. After all, other candidates who have received “straw” donations in the past include Jim Hahn, Wendy Greuel, Rocky Delgadillo and … Steve Cooley.
None of them was ever charged. Cooley's office did prosecute the contributors in several instances, extracting pleas to misdemeanor violations of state campaign finance law.
But in his own case, the contributions were never even investigated. In 2010, the Weekly reported that Cooley had received $12,000 from Gladwin Gill and employees of his home-health agency for his re-election bid in 2004.
|D.A. Steve Cooley|
Gill later pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations for reimbursing contributors to George W. Bush's re-election campaign and to three other federal campaigns, and was sentenced to a year in prison. Six of the “straw” donors identified in the federal case also gave to Cooley, but those local contributions were not investigated. The D.A.'s public integrity prosecutors said they would have investigated had they received a complaint about them.
All of which is to say that Cooley seems likely to hit Noguez with more serious charges than just accepting straw contributions. Those violations alone would likely be misdemeanors, and absent some evidence that Noguez knew about it or orchestrated it, the charges would likely be filed against the contributors, not the candidate.
The more severe allegations against Noguez are that he offered to lower property values in exchange for contributions, which would amount to bribery.
Time will tell whether the grand jury turns up enough evidence to prove that.