Even after his landslide defeat of the silver-haired, well-financed incumbent, Steve Cooley would seem an unlikely candidate to replace Gil Garcetti as the county‘s district attorney. As unassuming as Garcetti was imperial, as rumpled as Garcetti was sleek, Cooley retains the straightforward manner and barbershop affability that served him through 27 years of toil inside the burgeoning criminal-justice bureaucracy.
Yet Cooley, during a yearlong campaign and in the weeks since he took office early this month, has laid down a public-corruption agenda that promises to shake up the burghers of this city’s complacent political establishment — a plan, as Cooley put it at his swearing-in ceremony, to “root out corrupt public officials and expose corruption within public institutions.”
And during a recent interview, Cooley seemed to relish the thought of putting his policy into action. “We‘re making history here,” said the new district attorney.
Sitting in Garcetti’s recently vacated office, with empty, rented bookshelves lining the walls, Cooley pored over a chart describing his reorganization of the 1,200 lawyers in the D.A.‘s Office. He focused on what was formerly called the Special Investigations Division; now it will be known as the Bureau of Fraud and Corruption, and it will host two new divisions: Public Integrity, which will “go after corrupt public officials in a very focused way,” and Justice System Integrity. “That will focus on any individual within the justice system — defense attorney, judge, but primarily law-enforcement officer — who commits criminal acts that affect the integrity of the justice system,” Cooley said. “Very focused, very accountable.”
Of course, major scandals already litter L.A.’s political landscape, and Cooley doesn‘t plan to burden his new divisions with unfinished business. Instead, his new flow chart includes two ad hoc units titled “Rampart” and “Belmont.”
On Rampart, Cooley reserved judgment on where his investigations would take him, but vowed to resolve the dozens of cases still outstanding in a police scandal that has hung over the city and the LAPD for more than a year. Regarding the dozens of allegations of police misconduct at Rampart, Cooley said he’s considering “what‘s left out there to be filed, and how do we wrap up the cases we know there’s insufficient evidence for. We do have to close these things out, with some decisions in writing. A lot of these cases are just sort of dangling. We have to complete this process.”
Cooley will also bring a new approach to the question of people imprisoned by Rampart officers. Garcetti‘s office took Rafael Perez’s lead in deciding who would be released from prison, and resisted efforts to delve into the cases of others arrested on allegedly bogus charges — a strategy many defense attorneys said amounted to a cover-up. Cooley said he‘ll invite defense attorneys to bring the cases, based on review of all the available documents. “We’ll tell them, come and look at our file, including our work product, which we have the discretion to give them. And then the D.A. who handled the case should sit there and say, ‘Here is our case file, here are my notes.’ The defense attorney then goes back and looks at their notes, their case file, which is confidential. They then bring the writ; we accede or acquiesce in it.
”The whole justice system should be putting its efforts into resolving the tainted-cases issue. Thousands of cases may be affected. Why rely upon Rafael Perez? It‘s upside-down and backwards.“
As to the deal Garcetti struck with Perez, under which the admitted dirty cop detailed alleged misconduct by fellow officers in return for a reduced sentence, Cooley said he was reviewing it closely. ”I gave it to a couple of people to look at, to see did he breach this contract, that we can get out of it, and go back to square one with him, and we’re looking at that. Right now it‘s not too encouraging.“
Belmont — the Los Angles Unified School District’s disastrous, failed effort to build what is already the nation‘s most expensive high school — is the other scandal that has come to define the ineptitude of L.A.’s public institutions. Cooley plans to bring that case to light, and to closure, as well.
”We‘ve got to go back and look at Belmont and see, did they really address some of the environmental violations which I believe may have occurred, based upon what I’ve checked out, and have we done everything we could do in terms of allegations of contracting fraud? On environment, [Garcetti] closed it out, no action, and [school-district Inspector General Don] Mullinax said it was a prosecutorial whitewash. And they‘ve never really closed the circle on allegations of contracting fraud.“
The Rampart and Belmont cases represent the spearhead of his public-integrity initiative, but Cooley said he’s willing to take on any institution, any public agency. Already, Cooley said, his office has opened an investigation into possible misconduct at the Community Redevelopment Agency downtown. ”We‘re running up the flag, letting people know,“ Cooley said. ”This is what we do. Come see us.“
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