EVERY CRIMINAL DEFENDANT needs a good lawyer. Better if the lawyer is a close personal friend of District Attorney Steve Cooley.
The benefits of such coziness are described in an 11-page memo by a former Los Angeles prosecutor who resigned over what he considered to be questionable backroom deals that Cooley’s pal Robert Philibosian cut with the D.A.’s Office.
Cooley and Philibosian go way back. When Philibosian was the district attorney in 1984, he tapped Cooley as the youngest head deputy in the office’s history; he campaigned for Cooley in 2000; he emceed Cooley’s inauguration and worked on his transition team. Philibosian and Cooley own property together at Lake Arrowhead.
So what was Philibosian, a partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, doing in the middle of the recent campaign-money-laundering conviction of power lawyer Pierce O’Donnell? Or the Newhall Land & Ranch Co. environmental-crimes investigation? Or the investigation into allegations of corruption in the city of Cudahy? Or the Venoco oil-well-emissions investigation at Beverly Hills High School?
Former Deputy District Attorney Matthew Monforton raised questions about Philibosian’s influence with Cooley in two memos sent to Cooley’s director of fraud and corruption prosecutions. He got nowhere. His February 2005 memo, obtained by the L.A. Weekly, came on the heels of criminal charges against O’Donnell. Monforton was outraged that the D.A.’s Office, despite objections from the Public Integrity Division, agreed to a request by O’Donnell’s lawyers to seal the criminal complaint. This allowed O’Donnell to finish a trial he was handling. “I am informed by sources I consider reliable that O’Donnell’s team recruited Philibosian, who successfully lobbied members of this [office] for just such an [agreement],” wrote Monforton, who later resigned in protest.
O’Donnell pleaded no contest in June — the same as a guilty plea — to five misdemeanor counts of making campaign contributions to former Mayor Jim Hahn under false names. He was fined $300,000 and banned from making political contributions and contracting with the city for three years. But he ducked a jail sentence. By contrast, former councilman Art Snyder pleaded guilty in 1997 to nine misdemeanor counts of money laundering and conspiracy; he served six months in jail and paid a $216,000 fine. O’Donnell was represented by Sacramento lawyer George O’Connell, but sources familiar with his prosecution say he benefited from Philibosian’s involvement in a plea bargain that spared him jail time.
On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Juliet Schmidt confirmed that Philibosian was one of three lawyers who negotiated the deal. Schmidt defended the plea agreement, and characterized Philibosian as a stealth presence. “I never saw [Philibosian] in court and his name is not on any court papers,” she said. “But the sentence was harsh and there was nothing done wrong.” Reached at his Sacramento office on Monday, O’Connell objected to questions about Philibosian. He would not talk about the role that Cooley’s friend played in the O’Donnell case: “I couldn’t talk about that.” When the L.A. Weekly contacted Philibosian’s office this week, his secretary confirmed Pierce O’Donnell as a client. Philibosian did not return calls for comment.
Cooley’s office would not respond to written questions about its dealings with Philibosian, but agreed to make lead prosecutors in various cases available at a later time for interviews, to describe their interaction with the influential defense attorney.
The D.A.’s Office has had ample opportunity to rectify the conflict posed by Philibosian’s friendship with Cooley, according to Monforton’s memo. In 2004, Monforton got riled over Sheppard Mullin’s representation of the city of Cudahy. The firm was hired in 2001 to deal with a grand-jury investigation into whether former Councilman George Perez violated state law when he stepped down and was immediately appointed city manager by his peers on the council; no charges were ever filed. Details about the firm’s hiring quickly overshadowed the allegations facing Perez and his colleagues. Former assistant city manager Aurora Martinez testified that the city was not properly advised about a retainer agreement that allowed Philibosian’s firm to jointly represent both the city and its council members, who were under investigation. In general, elected officials have their own lawyer when there are allegations of public corruption. Yet a similar arrangement in the South Gate political-corruption scandal later caused Philibosian’s firm to pay $2 million in damages to that beleaguered city.
Monforton’s 2005 memo states that in Cudahy, Sheppard Mullin fraudulently secured waivers from city officials then racked up $1 million in legal fees — a hefty tab for Cudahy residents. “A retainer agreement executed by Philibosian formed the basis of [the firm’s joint] representation,” Monforton wrote to Richard Doyle, director of the D.A.’s fraud and corruption prosecutions, and Lael Rubin, head deputy district attorney in the appellate division. Former head deputy district attorney George Palmer initially agreed with Monforton that the joint representation looked fishy and should be referred to the state attorney general, the memo states. But nothing was done.
Palmer, now retired, did not return calls for comment. But former veteran Los Angeles prosecutor Roderick Leonard, one of Monforton’s colleagues, recalls a failed attempt to disqualify Sheppard Mullin for not securing a valid waiver to represent both the city and its council members. After five years, the ruling still doesn’t sit right with Leonard, a statewide legal-ethics expert now in private practice.
The Monforton memo states that the D.A.’s Office rightly questioned the waiver by Cudahy council members of their right to separate legal representation, but that the office never challenged the city’s waiver of that right. State law requires that both parties to a potential conflict of interest knowingly waive their rights to separate counsel. After Los Angeles Judge David Wesley ruled against disqualifying Sheppard Mullin, the firm was free to represent the city, its employees and the council members, whose legal fees were paid with taxpayer money. In his memo, Monforton states that Sheppard Mullin deceived Wesley with “fraudulent misrepresentations.”
Leonard, who worked on the case, sees it differently, though he, too, questions the credibility of witnesses who testified that city officials knew what they were doing when they agreed to joint representation in a grand-jury investigation of Perez and the council members who appointed him city manager. “I have high regard for [Monforton] but I don’t know if there was fraud there. I do believe there was a conflict of interest. I have problems with the factual finding by the judge. I believe our witness was telling the truth and should be believed — as opposed to Sheppard Mullin’s witnesses. The city lost a huge amount of money. Sheppard Mullin ate into [the city’s] reserves.”
Monforton, who would not elaborate on his memo, points to documents he claims will show that “Sheppard Mullin attorneys knew they lacked the city’s consent [to joint representation] even as they declared the exact opposite under penalty of perjury.” He states that the council members had no right to legal representation at taxpayer expense, and that the retainer agreement, executed by Philibosian, violates state law. “Philibosian and the other Sheppard Mullin attorneys who used the retainer to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal fees, therefore, are also potentially culpable as either conspirators or aiders and abettors.”
TIES BETWEEN COOLEY and Philibosian become more troubling considering how many corruption cases Philibosian’s firm handles. In 2003, when investigator and activist Erin Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry sued Venoco and two dozen other oil companies for alleged hazardous emissions at Beverly Hills High School, the D.A.’s Office investigated for possible environmental crimes. Philibosian handled the matter, which resulted in no charges. In 2002, Sheppard Mullin partner Tom Brown was forced to stop representing the Entertainment Industry Development Corporation and its president, Cody Cluff, who later was convicted of embezzling public funds, when Brown disputed a decision by city and county officials to place Cluff on leave pending the investigation. What irked the officials was Brown’s placing Cluff’s interests above the publicly funded film agency’s.
In 2003, Deputy District Attorney Richard Sullivan was punished with a demeaning assignment for going public with concerns over the investigation of allegations of environmental crimes and perjury by the Newhall Land & Ranch Co. According to Monforton’s memo, Philibosian represented Newhall in the case. But when prosecutors, who suspected the company of lying about the presence of the endangered spineflower, sought a search warrant to obtain business records, Cooley blocked the effort and branded them “reckless and unethical,” according to the memo. No perjury investigation ever occurred. The company later paid a small fine.
A former veteran prosecutor in the D.A.’s Office, Sterling Norris, now the head of judicial monitoring in California for Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog, says Cooley and Philibosian have crossed the line. “Someone should declare a conflict,” says Norris, whose group is weighing a legal action on behalf of the city of Cudahy. “Cooley and Philibosian have been friends for years .?.?. These guys are all in bed together. Cudahy officials were buying juice. They were buying Philibosian — with taxpayer money.”
Read Monforton’s memo at laweekly.com.