It took state investigators more than five years to build a criminal case against Richard Alarcon.
To prove Alarcon lied about living outside the Los Angeles City Council district he was elected to represent, they conducted surveillance, questioned neighbors and served search warrants at his two homes. The case went through a grand jury before a month-long trial ended with Alarcon being found guilty and given a four-month jail sentence.
But when the veteran L.A. politician turned himself in Friday to begin his sentence, county jailers strapped an electronic monitor to his ankle and sent him away to serve 51 days under house arrest. Another politician accused of breaking residency laws, former state Sen. Roderick Wright, met a similar fate earlier this year. After he showed up to start his 90-day sentence, he was released almost immediately because the jail was already overcrowded with more serious offenders.
The cases have left some wondering whether they were worth all the time, effort and cost.
"It's hard for me to think that the state of California will be better governed by these cases being brought forward," said UCLA Law School professor emeritus Daniel Lowenstein, who questioned whether prosecutors should instead focus on political corruption cases with broader public consequences, such as bribery or campaign money laundering.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey declined to comment on the jail terms served by Alarcon and Wright, but she pledged to "continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute" such residency cases. In arguing for a stiff sentence after Alarcon's conviction, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michele Gilmer declared to the judge that "Richard Alarcon is not remorseful ... he remains utterly unrepentant."
Wright's and Alarcon's convictions are just the latest in an uncommon trend; in a little more than a decade, nine politicians in L.A. County have been successfully prosecuted for lying about their residency when they ran for office.
Lowenstein, like other legal and political observers interviewed for this story, agrees that these politicians broke the law and bear responsibility for that decision. California election code requires that candidates swear that they live in the districts they seek to represent. But to say that these prosecutions are "unusual is probably an understatement," he said.
Historically, California, like the rest of the country, has treated residency issues "rather loosely," he said. Nationally, assertions that politicians live outside their districts tend to be politically charged, usually surfacing in an opponent's campaign advertising before an election. In 2000, Hillary Clinton's eligibility to represent New York in the U.S. Senate came under question for that very reason. Such allegations, however, typically disappeared after an election.
That changed in L.A. in 2001, when newly elected Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley created the Public Integrity Division, a special branch dedicated to prosecuting elected officials. "I saw the need," Cooley said in a recent interview, "and we did it."
Cooley won the 2000 election against then-D.A. Gil Garcetti, who was under fire for his handling of the Rampart scandal, a massive police corruption case in which Los Angeles Police Department officers were found to have framed gang members for crimes they did not commit. Cooley campaigned on a promise to beef up investigations into police and public officials.
The newly created branch frequently received tips and allegations from the public. Between 2001 and 2012, the Public Integrity Division received an average of 337 complaints against public officials per year, according to data from the unit.
Cooley's most high-profile public corruption case was the prosecution of officials in the city of Bell in the summer of 2010. Five City Council members and several administrators were convicted of misappropriating public money, and several were sent to prison.
But there were also many residency cases. Before Alarcon, there was Leonis Malburg, who was the mayor of Vernon for more than 50 years and was sentenced in 2010 to pay more than $600,000 for not living in the tiny city. Before that, Linda Guevara, a Huntington Park councilwoman, was found to actually live in Downey and sentenced to six months in jail. In 2002, Basil Kimbrew pleaded no contest to lying that he lived in Compton when he filed to run for mayor there.
Cooley denies that the residency prosecutions were intended to curry favor with voters.
"It wasn't a matter of trying to get a bunch of scalps," he said.
Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine election law expert, questions focusing on crimes in which no one is harmed beyond "the fact that the politician has lied to the public."
"Just like the police don't go after every case of jaywalking because there's more important crime to worry about," Hasen said, "this really isn't high on the list of things politicians do."
Hasen contends the state residency law is vague and needs clarification that only the Legislature could provide. Some lawmakers in Sacramento appear to agree, although they are not ready to discuss it publicly.
Edward Loya, a former prosecutor with the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, said he supports Cooley's and now Lacey's pursuit of such crimes. He said a county district attorney's office is perfectly equipped to handle residency cases because they have local connections to help with the investigation, and because bigger cases involving politicians are sometimes taken over by federal prosecutors.
Loya said that the guilty verdicts for Alarcon and Wright mean that there was enough evidence for the D.A.'s office to fairly open a case in the first place.
"You can't create something out of nothing," he said.
It is not surprising that such prosecutions would continue under Lacey, who was Cooley's chief deputy.
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, said that once a prosecutorial precedent has been set, it's very hard to back away from it.
"Once it happens, the umbrella is expanded," he said. "That's it, it's done, and it probably doesn't go the other way."
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