Sunday, May 25, 2008

Crime and Politics: Tales of the Incumbent DA

On June 3, the voters of Los Angeles County will have the opportunity to re-elect Steve Cooley to a third term as District Attorney. He is the predicted winner, according to the mainstream press, in part because of his incumbency and the $800,000 he raised for his re-election campaign, over $700,000 more than his opposition. Although he is “reluctantly” endorsed by the Los Angeles Times1, the Times continues to pay him homage. That praise may be deserved, but should be balanced by some of the more questionable, if not unethical, situations in which Cooley has inveigled himself during his two-term tenure as head District Attorney.

If it’s true that all power corrupts, Cooley is a perfect example, at least according to his opposition, Steve Ipsen and Albert Robles. Both candidates have charged Cooley with playing favorites.

Ipsen, a prosecutor and president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, has stated that Cooley raised his campaign money partly through contributions from Los Angeles defense attorneys and their staffers. To further illustrate Cooley's coziness with the LA defense crowd, Ipsen charges that at Cooley's birthday bash, the guest list largely consisted of defense lawyers. And, according to Ipsen, no one from Cooley's office was invited2. An odd tea party indeed.

Contributing to Cooley's reelection isn't against the law, but Ipsen felt so strongly about the conflict of interest that he submitted an initiative in late 2007 to the secretary of state. Marsy's Law, an initiative to protect victim's rights, in part bars criminal defendants and defense attorneys from donating to campaigns for prosecutorial offices.3

Calling defense attorney contributions to the district attorney a “conflict of interest” is like calling a tornado a breeze. It implies payoffs, and things that can be fixed, such as verdicts in a courtroom. Imagine defendants with high-powered attorneys who scratch Cooley’s back – and vice versa.

In fact, in 2003, high-powered Los Angeles Defense Attorney Harland Braun, representing a company accused of campaign money-laundering for a local city councilman, admitted he donated to Cooley’s campaign and admitted that Cooley solicited other attorneys as well.4 It seems that Ipsen’s claims are not totally unfounded.

Braun was Robert Blake’s defense attorney in 2002. In a highly-publicized story, Braun allegedly quit as Blake’s counsel because Blake insisted on doing a jailhouse interview with Barbara Walters. But were there underlying reasons that Blake had to finally retain a defense attorney who practiced outside Los Angeles? If Braun’s contribution to Cooley’s campaign looks innocent, consider also Braun’s private investigator, Scott Ross, who reportedly worked with co-Lead Detective Brian Tyndall in the Los Angeles Rampart division and knew each other well. Tyndall was brought in on the Blake case about a month after Bonny Lee Bakley’s murder in June 2001. Some would call it coincidence, others circumstantial.

Ipsen is not the only prosecutor who has accused Cooley of cronyism.

In 2005, Matthew Monforton, a district attorney from Cooley’s office, filed a complaint against his boss alleging conflict of interest in cases involving campaign money-laundering, environmental crime, and political corruption.5 All of the cases were directly or indirectly linked to Cooley’s longtime friend and supporter, defense attorney Robert Philibosian and Philibosian's law firm.

Recently a judge barred the entire District Attorney's office from participating in a woman's appeal of her 1982 murder conviction on the grounds that prosecutors renegged on a plea bargain.6

According to the Los Angeles Times article, "…Cooley and his top aides made an initial agreement in 2005 to allow Peagler [the defendant] to plead to a lesser charge… but changed their minds after learning more about the slaying." The District Attorney agreed to reduce the charge to manslaughter, allowing Peagler to appeal for release. Defense attorneys said that at the time of the plea bargain, Cooley's office requested that the defense not reveal in court papers that Cooley's office had withheld evidence of a 1983 memo that showed a key witness had lied while testifying at Peagler's trial.

Campaign contributions may not be illegal, but withholding evidence certainly is.

Others will claim that Cooley does his job with a certain level of tenacity. Ask Stephen Heller. Heller is a whistleblower. While working at Jones Day law firm which represented Diebold, a company that supplies voting machines in Calfornia, Heller found evidence of irregularities regarding Diebold’s voting machines -- irregularities of which Diebold was fully aware -- and other evidence showing that the law firm had warned Diebold about violating California election laws by using uncertified vote-counting software7. Heller turned memos detailing his allegations over to an election watchdog group, Black Box Voting, and also to the secretary of state and the Oakland Tribune.

Although the whistleblowers of Enron and Worldcom were lauded as heroes on the cover of Time magazine, Heller got a different kind of recognition. Cooley filed charges against Heller for computer theft, commercial burglary, and receiving stolen property. Heller tried to fight the charges, and a defense fund was set up to help, but in the end Heller was forced to plead guilty to felony computer crime, fined $10,000 and three years probation, and apologized to Diebold and the Jones Day law firm8.

In November 2007, Cooley asked the LA Board of Supervisors for a raise, claiming he made less money than his counterpart in the Public Defender’s office. Although the Public Defender made $395 more than Cooley, the Board approved a raise of $55,000, or approximately 23 percent, bringing Cooley’s salary to $292,300. Cooley now makes more than the highest paid U.S. Supreme Court justice, Chief Justice John Roberts9 -- and, certainly far more now than the Public Defender, who may never catch up.

In a time when Los Angeles and California are facing budget cuts, one wonders what the city council was thinking. Surely, few private citizens in Los Angeles have received a 20+ percent raise for doing their jobs.

What makes it more offensive is that jurors who sit through trials and are tasked to evaluate all the evidence, follow the rules of the court, and fairly render a verdict are paid $15 a day plus one-way mileage for their time and inconvenience. And apparently, if they don’t agree with the District Attorney, Cooley can get away with publicly calling them “incredibly stupid,” as he did after the Blake verdict10. It was not only unethical, but unlawful to harass jurors in such a manner. The rules, however, don’t apply to Cooley.

During Blake's wrongful death trial, a civil jury heard evidence that the criminal jurors hadn't heard – a secretly recorded tape made by Lead Detective Ronald Ito. Ito is heard on the tape attempting to intimidate a witness, Brian Allan Fiebelkorn, who had evidence of third party culpability. In it, Ito tells the witness he, Cooley, and criminal prosecutor Shellie Samuels knew all about the evidence and were not going to allow it to be presented in court.11

That tape recording was never turned over to the defense during the criminal trial or civil trial. It is presumed that the tape was mistakenly turned over to the plaintiff in the civil matter by the DA's office. No surprise since many other tape recordings had mysteriously gone missing during the criminal trial, including the recording of Blake's interview with police the night of the murder. During that interview, Blake made statements regarding a black Lincoln Continental and a man in a black pickup truck, evidence which was later corroborated by Fiebelkorn.

Cooley has a penchant for "collecting" evidence in high-profile cases12. He has turned part of his office into an evidence museum, including some props from the county's historical vault. That vault contains pictures and transcripts from the Black Dahlia case, items from the investigation into the death of Marilyn Monroe, the clothes of assassinated U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, and records from the Charles Manson trial. One curious item belongs to Michael Jackson – a suitcase containing books, clothes, and personal items. Jackson was acquitted of molestation charges in 2005, and presumably, personal items taken as evidence, if they no longer hold evidentiary value, are released to their owner.

Unless Jackson gave Cooley permission to keep the suitcase among his crime memorabilia, isn't that stealing?

In his 2004 acceptance speech after winning a second term as LA District Attorney, Cooley credits himself for the formation of the "Justice System Integrity Division."13 According to Cooley, the JSID is "charged with investigating and prosecuting allegations of criminality by police officers, attorneys, judges, anyone in justice system who violates the trust placed in them as part of that system."

Cooley claimed that this "reform" was brought about in part by the Rampart scandal. Rampart was a case involving wide-spread misconduct by Los Angeles police officers. But instead of prosecuting the accused officers as he promised in his first term as DA, Cooley declined to file dozens of charges and left other complaints uninvestigated until the statute of limitations ran out on the crimes14.

During his campaign for his first term, Cooley criticized then District Attorney Gil Garcetti for seeking a third term. Cooley vowed he would never do that. "If you can't accomplish what you're going to accomplish in two terms, move on," he said15.

Now full of himself, Cooley justifies his third bid for DA, stating that "I see situations out there that maybe only I can fulfill."

A sure sign, it seems, of the self-serving comfortableness that comes with power and control.

1 For District Attorney and the Board of Supervisors, LA Times, 4/28/08

2District Attorney Corruption? Two Views on DA Cooley's Record, Full Disclosure Network, 5/14/08

3ADDA's Ipsen Offers Initiative to Prevent Defense Bar from Contributing to Prosecutors' Campaigns, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, 12/18/07

4Indicted Donors Gave to Council, LA Times, 12/23/03

5The Steve and Bob Show, LA Weekly, 8/16/06

6D.A. Barred from Abused Woman's Appeal of 1982 Muder Case, LA Times, 4/26/08

7Diebold's Revenge, LA Weekly, 3/1/06

8November 21, 2006 article from the Oakland Tribune, Heller Legal Defense Fund

9L.A. Supervisors to Consider Raise for District Attorney, The Daily Breeze, 1/14/08

10No Apology for Robert Blake Jury, CBS News, 3/25/05

11The State's Conspiracy – Part II, Eye on the Sparrow, 11/2/05

12Historic Trove Recalls Famous L.A. Crimes, LA Times, 12/23/07

13About District Attorney Steve Cooley, Oath of Office Remarks 2004, 12/6/04

14LAPD Corruption Investigation to Result in Few Charges, CNN, 11/7/01

15Steve Cooley Makes his Case for Third Term as L.A. County D.A., LA Times, 5/18/08

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At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this blog is old, but I am still so puzzled by the implications of public reaction informed by media. You have provided a wealth of information, as does the site, and yet it seems to go virtually ignored by bobbleheads like Dr.Phil, Piers Morgan, and Tavis Smiley. Their seeming contempt for research is stunning and scary. So was the jury in Blake's trials. I think one juror wanted to know a)if he could name the 4 Gospels, b)if Bonny's daughter went to sunday school....some bizarre stuff like that. And here I thought it was lawyer's who were supposed to ask questions, and jurors decide on the answers. Apparantly in Californoa, the jury can 'get in on the action' by also trying the accused. This country's really starting to scare me. But anyway, I wanted to say I'm impressed to see you cite your sources. It's also becoming common place for journalists NOT to do so. Bloggeritis, no doubt. This site is a great resource, thank you.


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