State may take control of rap mogul's case
Death Row's 'Suge' Knight leased house from family of deputy D.A. monitoring his case and gave daughter a contract. The lawyer denies conflict.
Knight, founded Death Row Records, the label that shaped the rise of gangsta rap. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
The State Bar, meanwhile, launched a separate probe of Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence M. Longo after the disclosure Friday that his daughter was signed to a Death Row Records deal while Longo was monitoring Knight's probation from a 1992 assault case. Knight, who founded the phenomenally successful rap record label only four years ago, also lived this summer in a home leased from the Longo family in the exclusive Malibu Colony.
As the investigation widened Friday into the financial relationships between the Longo family, Knight and Knight's attorney, David Kenner, sources said the district attorney's office had accelerated its probe of Longo.
Longo has denied any wrongdoing, though legal ethicists said the relationships bore the appearance of impropriety. The district attorney is reviewing possible civil and criminal violations.
Longo was removed from the Knight case in late September, but courthouse sources said the district attorney's office had been moving slowly before Friday--and apparently had not even notified Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk, who is overseeing Knight's probation, that Longo was under investigation.
A source familiar with the case said the district attorney's office did not interview Longo himself until The Times called about the allegations on Thursday.
Ouderkirk approved a 1995 plea bargain, recommended by Longo and Kenner, that put Knight on five years probation for a 1992 assault on two aspiring rappers. In a pointed order issued Friday afternoon, Ouderkirk said he would ask state prosecutors on Monday to "address the possibility of a recusal of the district attorney's office" from Knight's case.
On Tuesday, Ouderkirk sent Knight to jail after the record executive had missed drug tests and other conditions of his probation. The judge is to decide Nov. 15 whether the 31-year-old rap mogul should remain on probation or be sent to state prison.
Some legal analysts said Friday that the state attorney general's office should take over the case.
"It seems to me it cleans the air as much as one can in this kind of situation," said John K. Van de Kamp, who served as both attorney general and district attorney and now is in private law practice in Los Angeles.
Van de Kamp and other political observers also suggested that the Knight case may prove a factor in the election campaign between Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and challenger John Lynch.
"If I were the D.A. . . . I would feel very embarrassed by this," Van de Kamp said.
Lynch declined to comment. But his supporters said the disclosures raised questions about Garcetti's management.
Defense attorney Harland Braun, a former deputy district attorney and an ardent Lynch backer, contended that the office had been dragging its feet in probing Longo to keep the issue from being revealed until after the election.
Calls to Garcetti on Friday were referred to Assistant Dist. Atty. Mike Tranbarger, who said: "For somebody to impugn the integrity of the office and of every deputy for political gain, it's tragic and extremely disappointing."
Garcetti offered only a brief public comment Friday after being asked about the case while attending the dedication of a new waiting room for child witnesses at the Criminal Courts Building.
"We're taking the matter very seriously," Garcetti said. "I can't comment any more. We're actively investigating the case."
Meanwhile, sources said the matter had been referred to the State Bar, which has the authority to investigate a range of attorney conduct, from ethical impropriety to more serious matters. The bar can reprimand or disbar an attorney.
Federal authorities have been probing Death Row Records and Knight for several months to determine whether the company is being run as a criminal enterprise, fronting for illegal activities. But Friday's disclosures have not been incorporated into that investigation--at least so far--according to sources close to the case.
Sources said the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies are collaborating in the probe, which was underway even before rapper Tupac Shakur's recent murder, which drew new attention to the record company. Shakur was shot to death in Las Vegas on Sept. 7 in a car driven by Knight.
Longo, who has spent 26 years as a county prosecutor, was abruptly taken off Knight's case after the district attorney's office learned Sept. 17 that Knight had been living in the Longo family's home in the Malibu Colony.
Longo arrived for work Friday morning at the Beverly Hills courthouse but was asked to leave by supervisors because a barrage of media calls was disrupting business.
Asked Friday morning about whether he had retained an attorney, Longo said, "No comment."
Knight, who built Death Row into the nation's top rap label, has a criminal history dating to a battery conviction in 1987. He is serving three years' probation on a federal weapons case. Neither he nor Kenner could not be reached Friday for comment.
Longo's daughter Gina, then 18, signed a record deal with Death Row on Jan. 2, 1996. She has never appeared on a record and is believed to be the only white singer of the 22 acts on Death Row's artist roster.
Longo served as the prosecutor on Knight's state case for nearly four years, from December 1992 until Sept. 17. He said Thursday that his son, Frank, also an attorney, negotiated and signed the record deal and the lease for the house.
Times staff writer Richard Serrano in Washington contributed to this story.