Mr. Clean

Los Angeles
December, 2004

The ad creators, political consultants, and money givers will all have their usual say in choosing the mayor of Los Angeles next year. This time so might District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose criminal investigation of players connected to the Hahn administration casts a lengthening shadow.

Whether Jim Hahn pleads his case to voters as an incumbent with a sketchy record and the stain of a corruption scandal largely depends on what emerges from Cooley’s yearlong effort—using grand jury testimony and broad subpoenas—to discern if the mayor’s allies became too insistent in the pursuit of campaign cash and city contracts for their friends. For the challengers, of course, criminal charges before the March primary would be helpful. "I don’t wish jail time on anyone, but sure, we have all sort of hoped for indictments," an adviser to one of Hahn’s opponents told me. The mayor, for his part, acts as if he has nothing to hide and welcomes closure.

The 57-year-old career prosecutor whose ruddy face and puffy, slightly Hitchcockian silhouette loom over the race doesn’t relish the pressure of being an intruder in it. Such scrutiny might not be helpful to his attempt to fashion a reputation as a crusader against corruption. Since he took over the largest nonfederal prosecuting agency in the nation four years ago, his team has racked up convictions against lesser elected officials like Compton mayor Omar Bradley and persuaded Cody Cluff, head of the Hollywood-funded agency that issues location shooting permits, to plead no contest to felony charges. Cooley glided to reelection last March, but the D.A. hasn’t been able to shake the image that his rottweiler bark yields to a puppy’s bite in big, politically sensitive cases. With the grand jury process shrouded in secrecy, speculation centers on what Cooley’s examination of city hall ethics will mean to his political standing. (He’s been mentioned as a future candidate for state attorney general.)

That’s all irrelevant, he says as we sit down in his 18th-floor office. What matters, he says, "is that the investigation end the right way—not having it unfairly hurt anybody or damage anybody, that if we do bring charges, they’re accurate, and that we do the best job we can do." Right up front, Cooley offers advice to Hahn and the mayor’s rivals: Forget about the grand jury. Perusal of the evidence won’t be rushed to fit any election timetable. "They should just run their race and let us do our job."

The D.A. shrugs off questions about details of the investigations into Hahn deputies and city commissioners and into the practices of public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard, which had intimate access to the mayor’s office. Can’t go there. But he seems eager to talk, sounding every bit the not-so-slick 27-year courtroom prosecutor he was before getting elected in 2000 as a Republican outsider in a Democratic town. Cooley acknowledges that the evidence-gathering at City Hall has mushroomed into a major commitment of attorney power and investigators’ time: "We don’t understand all of it yet. That’s going to take a little while and the efforts of many to really get a handle on it and see what the theories of criminal liability are."

It’s a high priority, he says, because Los Angeles is the largest city in the county and its so-called proprietary departments—airports, harbor, and water and power—disburse massive sums in contracts and services that are enticing to corruptible politicians and their friends. “We are devoting substantial resources,” he says. "It’s just a big one."

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Media reports and comments by City Controller Laura Chick, who has sent tips to Cooley, suggest the investigations are focusing on those three agencies’ governing commissions, whose unpaid mem­bers are appointed by the mayor. Grand jurors have reportedly been told that former airport commissioners Leland Wong and Ted Stein influenced the awarding of contracts. Part of what the D.A.’s prosecutors are trying to determine is whether any commissioners demanded campaign contributions to Hahn or to the 2002 antisecession committee in exchange for deals with the city. Troy Edwards, the deputy mayor who kept watch on the big departments for Hahn, has been called to testify. Wong resigned in January, Stein and Edwards in April. E-mail in and out of the mayor’s office has been subpoenaed, as have records from St. Louis–based Fleishman-Hillard, whose former local president, Doug Dowie, became a close adviser to Hahn’s office. Fleishman is under a cloud in part because of allegations by former employees that the firm’s Los Angeles practice falsified billings to the Department of Water and Power. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is looking into the claims, and Fleishman executives have begun their own review.

Hahn, Edwards, Stein, and Wong have denied wrongdoing. Cooley says he can’t predict whether criminal charges will be filed. “Sometimes you conclude this stinks, but it’s not a violation of the law,” he says. Deep into our conversation, he credits his unfinished probe with changing the culture at City Hall. Without prompting he mentions several of the departed: "Troy Edwards was a campaign fund-raiser who was made, like, the number two mayoral kind of person for the second largest city in the United States of America. What are his credentials to be deputy mayor of anything? Zero. He’s a fund-raiser. I’m not saying that being a fund-raiser is a bad deal, but what expertise does that give him about anything to help run this city? Leland Wong is gone. The guy survived two or three administrations. You have to ask why. What’s so special about Leland Wong? Well, we’re asking a lot of things about Leland Wong."

The D.A.’s investigation is proceeding in parallel with a separate grand jury asking questions across the street in the federal courthouse. County prosecutors have been deputized as acting U.S. attorneys so they can easily exchange information with the feds, and by all accounts the arrangement has expedited the cases. “If we need records from, let’s say, St. Louis, Missouri, hypothetically,” Cooley says, “it’s a lot easier for them to obtain those records through a grand jury back there and their colleagues.” The unusually cordial cooperation began soon after investigators bumped into each other. Cooley says his people were already at work when federal agents subpoenaed evidence regarding the airport commission. He called U.S. Attorney Debra Yang and proposed they coordinate. It’s unclear which of the proceedings is further along.

For Cooley, the "pay-to-play" case could be the Big One that finally meets the expectations he created early in his career with brash promises to instill a fear of prosecution in the county’s sleazier politicians. The neophyte campaigner began vowing to change the culture during his race to oust his boss, the unpopular Gil Garcetti. It frustrated him to read exposés in the newspapers about corrupt politicians while Gar­cetti and his predecessors refused to bring charges. Cooley says that D.A.s had been letting official crime go unpunished, either out of a desire not to upset their friends in politics or because they just didn’t see corruption as a priority. Soon after he arrived, Cooley formed a Public Integrity Division and told the attorneys to crack down.

"When I came in," he says, "there were three cases pending in the Los Angeles County D.A.’s office, either under investigation or in court, that could be characterized as a public integrity case or a corruption case. I think the numbers now are, we have convicted well over 60 people and we have probably well over a hundred active investigations." The grand jury has become his favorite tool for shaking loose evidence and witnesses, although it has also raised questions of potential abuse. No defense attorneys get to counter evidence or to observe their clients’ testimony, leading to the belief that more often than not, when the D.A. presents a case, an indictment will follow.

Making the charges stick, winning convictions at trial, then putting the bad guys away are something else. On those points Cooley earns mixed reviews.

His clearest impact has been on the crescent of small cities in the southeast portion of the county. His Public Integrity Division has gone after officials in South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens, and Compton and earned solid headlines. In Compton the mayor, city manager, and a coun­cilman were convicted. Bradley, now the ex-mayor, was sentenced to three years in prison for using his city credit card for personal expenses and for double billing. (The Los Angeles Times reported he is serving time in a half­way house.) South Gate voters have recalled a bloc of officials in the case, and the ringleader, former elected treasurer Albert Robles, faces trial on three felony charges. Five other charges were dismissed in June after a judge ruled that the pros­ecutors had improperly used the grand jury.

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Cooley is alert to criticism that by prosecuting corruption in small cities he hits singles and doubles but doesn’t slug for power: "First of all, they are home runs because no one ever hit them before. And they were hit out of the park, by and large. What [the critics] are saying—and they might not be thinking this—is that poor, ethnic, or working-class communities don’t deserve the attention of the D.A. because they are poor or their cities are small." Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in West Los Angeles, gives Cooley "high marks for what he’s been doing in the small cities. No one has done that before. It sends a clear message that ‘We are watching.'"

Another case that woke up the local political establishment was the prosecution of Cody Cluff, who ran the Entertainment Industry Development Corporation. Operating in the murky area between public and private, the EIDC collects fees from production companies in exchange for location shooting permits in the county. Cluff routed some of those fees as campaign contributions to the Los Angeles and county officials who composed his board of directors. His activities drew attention when the EIDC gave money to the antisecession campaign. Cluff was charged by the D.A. with spending agency money on himself. In May he pleaded no contest to embezzling public funds, spent three months behind bars while being evaluated for sentencing, and received three years’ probation. He also paid restitution of about $80,000.

"That was a big deal," Cooley says. "You talk to people in that industry, they were being run roughshod by this dictator, Cody Cluff. And of course Cody’s out doing whatever he’s doing with the money. The board of supervisors and the city council were very embarrassed. They didn’t want this thing exposed, and it got exposed big time."

He has yet to touch any major political player, though he has made things uncomfortable for Cardinal Roger Mahony by pressing demands for confidential files on abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Arch­­diocese of Los Angeles. The Times editorialized last year that “small-timers are easy to catch.…Where Cooley has been largely missing in action, is in going after the big guys.” It’s a reputation that has stuck since Cooley, who had campaigned on a promise to root out dirty cops, angered many supporters when he declined to aggressively prosecute LAPD officers in the Rampart scandal. He also concluded a lengthy examination of the failed Belmont Learning Complex near downtown by deciding no prosecution was warranted, despite insistence from his deputies and law enforcement sources that a strong corruption case could be made. A Times story last year reported that Cooley received a call from Supervisor Mike D. Antonovich, an early supporter of the D.A., on behalf of a target of the probe. Cooley has been criticized for transferring two deputies who pushed an investigation of the Newhall Land & Farming Company, a major contributor to Antonovich. Cooley says the supervisor has no influence over prosecutorial decisions.

Critics say Cooley is substituting his own sacred cows for those of Garcetti and his predecessors. “I’m trying to figure out how I got the guy so wrong,” journalist Charles Rappleye wrote last year in CityBeat, saying he felt “like a sucker” for believing Cooley was a real reformer. The D.A.’s reelection opponents, who included former Los Angeles city councilman Nick Pacheco, beat the drum for the idea that Cooley won’t deliver on a major case. His most prominent Los Angeles political prosecution this year involved misdemeanor campaign contribution laundering charges against attorney Pierce O’Donnell for allegedly funneling $25,500 to Hahn’s 2001 race and a felony charge of conspiracy against the vice president of the apartment developer Casden Properties and 14 of the firm’s contractors. The Casden case ended in October with no-contest pleas to a misdemeanor and probation.

Although he has not put many politicians in jail, Cooley insists that his efforts are working: "The two goals of the penal system are to punish for violations of the law and to deter people from committing the violations. What we’re doing has a deterrent value." A side benefit, he says, is that citizens believe their complaints about heavy-handed and dishonest public officials now will get a good response, and they are coming forward.

Cooley offers a second bit of advice to the candidates who are busy raising money to run for mayor. Learn the rules. Play by the rules. That’s good advice for Los Angeles’s politicians because they are being watched more closely than before, not just by the D.A. and U.S. prosecutors but by the staff of the city’s Ethics Commission.

However, shady fund-raising practices and abuses of the public trust are deeply ingrained in a local political structure that rewards the fixers and bagmen who find ways to dance on the outlaw edge of what the rules allow. Cooley alone won’t be able to change that, even if he wants to. He does have the advantages of independence from the inner circles and an authentic prosecutor’s hunger for justice being served. If he wants to send an unmistakable message, there’s no better way than to go after the larger prey and nab a trophy or two. Everyone will be watching to see if he can play in that game.

©Kevin Roderick 2004