|Photos by Debra DiPaolo|
The race for district attorney is an intensely personal joust between incumbent Gil Garcetti and two opponents who’ve run afoul of him. The sin of challenger Steve Cooley is persistent disloyalty to his boss, both in this election and the last. The animosity between Garcetti and challenger Barry Groveman stretches even farther back — to the mid-1980s — when Garcetti, before becoming the top prosecutor, maneuvered Groveman right out of the
District Attorney’s Office. And while personal feuds matter little to voters, the nature of these rifts offers telling detail about the politics and style of the challengers and the
Cooley’s bad blood with Garcetti is straightforward enough. Cooley, a prosecutor for 26 years, joined renegade head deputies to support fellow prosecutor John F. Lynch in his race against Garcetti in 1996. Despite a slow-starting campaign, Lynch stunned observers by coming within two-tenths of one percent of defeating the incumbent in a runoff.
At the time, Garcetti was weakened by the mishandled O.J. Simpson case and by disclosures about his favors to campaign contributors. But Lynch also benefited significantly from Cooley, who’d hosted a fund-raiser that brought in $50,000, while also networking his moneyed contacts in the Republican Party and the judicial-review boards that he’d served on as a Republican appointee.
Cooley, 52, paid a price for his previous tilt with the boss, getting transferred early in 1997 from head deputy in the San Fernando Valley to running the welfare-fraud unit downtown. “To take a guy like that out of a command position, and to bring him downtown to be in charge of a small unit like welfare fraud is like taking you off the battlefield for a desk job,” said Lynch. “Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do in welfare fraud, but if you look at it historically, welfare fraud is not at the top of many wish lists, and it’s at the bottom of a lot.”
Nonetheless, Cooley’s gotten good reviews in the new post, as he has in previous positions, which leaves Garcetti, a Democrat, to focus on Cooley’s politics, labeling him a “right-wing, arch-conservative extremist.”
Cooley resists this label. Both he and fellow challenger Barry Groveman fault Garcetti over pursuing life sentences for repeat offenders charged with nonviolent crimes.
Cooley also opposes Proposition 21 — the latest tough-on-crime initiative — which targets juveniles. This Pete Wilson–backed measure would give prosecutors too much authority to try juveniles as adults, according to Cooley. “I do not believe in unchecked power by any part of government or any entity in the criminal justice system,” he said. “I’m a believer in the rehabilitative model of the juvenile court system.”
Garcetti said he’s personally against Proposition 21, but officially neutral — whatever that means. Groveman, an environmental attorney and a Democrat, said he’s voting for 21, but that he hasn’t endorsed it — whatever that means.
Cooley’s supporters mouth a steady mantra: Their man is a better administrator and more upright than Garcetti, and more experienced and trustworthy than Groveman. “Steve Cooley is smart and knows the office,” said Wilbur F. Littlefield, the longtime head of the county Public Defender’s Office, who retired in 1993. “And Steve Cooley does things. He doesn’t sit on his hands. Steve is highly thought of by the other people in the office.”
Groveman’s supporters question whether Cooley’s administration would be different enough from Garcetti’s to prevent future Rampart-like scandals. Cooley remains an old-fashioned law-and-order guy without much patience for the high-profile crime-prevention efforts launched by Garcetti, such as one that sends upper-echelon trial attorneys into schools for anti-truancy programs.
“I don’t think that’s our core mission,” said Cooley. “I personally believe we haven’t dedicated enough resources to public corruption, to organized crime. It’s like everything else Gil does — it’s calculated for positive press.”
If that traditional approach sounds too, well, Republican, the ballot offers the alternative of 46-year-old Barry Groveman. He brings, in his words, “an insider’s experience and an outsider’s perspective.”
That inside experience at the D.A.’s Office was from late 1984 to mid-1986, when Groveman served as special assistant district attorney to the newly elected Ira Reiner. Both men came over from the City Attorney’s Office, which does not handle felony prosecutions. Reiner immediately assigned Groveman to form a strike force on environmental crime and report directly to him. Except for several other appointees, everyone else reported to Reiner’s chief deputy: Gil Garcetti.
By most accounts, Groveman got diverse agencies to work together, including those that didn’t initially take environmental crime seriously. “Barry is a typhoon when he gets going,” recalled John Lynch. “And you need those kinds of energies to get something like this off the ground.”
But neither Groveman nor Reiner’s other appointees lasted long as rivals to Garcetti’s authority as chief deputy under Reiner. “When Gil is in charge of something, he likes to be in charge of everything from pencils to bombs,” said Lynch. “Neither one of them is a second banana. Both see themselves as the one who’s going to set the agenda and chair the meeting.”
In late 1985, Garcetti created an environmental-crimes unit which, in effect, supplanted Groveman’s authority. The person he placed in charge was none other than John Lynch, then a young prosecutor with no previous managerial experience. Groveman’s title and salary remained the same, but now he was four bureaucratic levels below Garcetti. Soon after, Groveman took a leave of absence to help lead the campaign for Proposition 65, a landmark environmental initiative.
Then, in June 1986, according to a press account, Garcetti announced that Groveman, should he return, would be assigned to a branch office in a deputy district attorney’s post, that is, a regular prosecutor’s position with no senior administrative responsibilities.
Groveman never returned from his leave of absence, but he also insists he was never demoted.
The environmental strike force now became the territory of the low-key Lynch, rather than the flamboyant, politically threatening Groveman. “It was environmental prosecution’s turn to be hot,” said Lynch. “Sometimes there were more cameras in the courtroom than witnesses. We did large cases, convicted a lot of people. And,” Lynch added graciously, “it was Barry Groveman and Ira Reiner who put that thing together.”
Eventually Garcetti and Reiner had a falling out, leading to Garcetti’s successful challenge of Reiner for the D.A.’s job in 1992.
Groveman’s private practice has often focused on representing companies facing environmental sanctions — polluters, in other words. Purists accused Groveman of crossing to the dark side, while others note that Groveman did what most attorneys do — followed the money in his particular specialty.
“Because he had worked in our office, he got a lot of great cases,” said retired environmental prosecutor Anthony Patchett, who has endorsed Cooley. “I mean, great cases in terms of the amount of money available to a defense attorney. And he’s been defending some of the worst polluters out there.”
Groveman characterizes his defense of polluters as “bringing industry into compliance with regulators.” He also notes that his clients have included government agencies, such as the cities of Montebello and Santa Monica and the L.A. Unified School District.
His work at L.A. Unified, however, underscores how Groveman can be a lightning rod for turmoil. For about a decade, he was the school system’s top outside environmental legal counsel. In 1998, Groveman put together a special “school safety team” in the wake of disclosures about new schools being built on contaminated land. For the first time, Groveman was more of a policy shaper than a hired attorney, though, in fact, the two roles overlapped and sometimes conflicted.
In the case of Jefferson Middle School, for example, some state regulators considered Groveman an obstructionist. “He would question what we wanted to do and try to get by with the minimum safety review,” asserted one midlevel administrator with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, who requested anonymity. “I hear his speeches about how environmentally good he is, and I didn’t experience that.”
By the time the safety team got to the Belmont Learning Complex, however, Groveman was poised to become the school district’s environmental crusader, a role that coincided with the beginnings of his candidacy. Groveman, working behind the scenes, also helped engineer the removal of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias and, less directly, several of the district’s top bureaucrats. All in the interests of reform.
Said one district insider: “Barry always wanted it both ways: to stay in the district and be an insider and, at the same time, go on the outside and club it to death. What I take umbrage with is that Barry never recused himself, stepped off the district payroll and became an advocate for reform on his own dime.”
Groveman responds that his mission was to serve the public first; he also enjoyed support from a new school-board majority that desired a management shakeup.
Groveman and Garcetti never patched things up, and in 1994, Groveman got a measure of revenge after the district attorney threatened to scale back the environmental-crimes strike force, citing budget woes. Supervisor Gloria Molina put forward Groveman as an outside expert who contended that Garcetti needed to do nothing of the kind. “Garcetti got caught,” said Groveman. “He used this as a pawn in a larger game with the budget. Molina smoked him out with me. He backed down completely and the unit was preserved.”
In 1998, Garcetti thwarted Groveman’s bid to be recommended by Senator Dianne Feinstein for the U.S. Attorney post in Southern California. When Garcetti heard that Groveman was on the short list, he picked up the phone and called the California senator. “I said it would be a disaster for the president, for Janet Reno, and for you — for all of us,” Garcetti told the Weekly. While he didn’t mean for word of his call to come out, “I stand behind what I did.” The job went to someone else.
Last July, when Groveman began to look like a candidate for Garcetti’s job, Garcetti — or his office — allegedly intervened again. At the time, Groveman was getting good press with the school district’s “safety team.” School-board president Genethia Hayes contends that a lower-level staffer in the D.A.’s Office called her at home to pass on information that Groveman had been fired from the D.A.’s Office for incompetence. The caller would not say who had asked her to give Hayes this “heads up.” Garcetti quickly denied asking anyone to smear Groveman.
As in 1996, Garcetti is vulnerable; he’s the one officeholder with ties to Rampart whom voters can reach. Critics are troubled that Garcetti has clamped down on the release of information that could shed light on whether prosecutors or even Garcetti himself ignored Rampart warning signs. And it was Garcetti who, in 1995, eliminated the D.A.’s rollout unit that investigated police shootings. Garcetti blamed the budget, but found money to prosecute trademark-infringement cases put together by Guess jeans, whose owners were among his top campaign donors.
If such factors prove enough to put Steve Cooley or Barry Groveman into a runoff with Garcetti, make no mistake that these challengers will feel an especially personal sense of satisfaction at having done the deed.