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It may be time to worry about the D.A.'s public corruption unit

It may be time to worry about the D.A.'s public corruption unit
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey speaks at a press conference in the Hall of Justice downtown in June 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

It was no victory for Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey on Friday when two men entered no-contest pleas arising from alleged rip-offs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Prosecutors in what had once been considered an elite anti-corruption unit of the D.A.'s office mishandled evidence and in so doing may have undermined their own case against events manager Todd DeStefano and had to settle for restitution and six months in jail. He had been facing up to 10 years in prison. Promoter Reza Gerami will now pay a fine.

As reported in the Times on Saturday, the settlement followed incidents in which one member of Lacey's Public Integrity Division improperly viewed communications between a defendant and his lawyer and had to be removed from the case, and another member of the team then was improperly in contact with the first one.

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The judge questioned whether the D.A.'s office is capable of handling complex prosecutions — and the public must now be wondering the same thing.

The point of the Public Integrity Division when then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley created it 15 years ago was to ensure that county prosecutors could and would go after corrupt officials who lied to or stole from the public and, in the process, undermined the people's confidence in democratic government.

County district attorneys like Cooley and Lacey are elected and have built-in political pressures that naturally raise questions about their motivation to investigate and prosecute corruption by their colleagues in other offices. The corruption unit was in part an answer to that concern because it operates with a measure of independence, even though it ultimately reports to the D.A.

The Coliseum is a historic, publicly owned stadium, governed by elected officials or their appointees. But the immediate worry is not that the D.A. was letting public officials off easy but that the case was beyond the office's ability.

Lacey strongly denies the notion and notes that her office won a felony conviction, with jail time, against DeStefano. And it is true that not many other district attorney's offices have public integrity units or handle these kinds of cases. That's to the credit of Cooley and now to Lacey.

But Los Angeles is a big jurisdiction requiring top-quality legal work, and Lacey has an office of 1,000 prosecutors. It successfully prosecuted corruption in the city of Bell after a series of Times stories spotlighted problems there in 2010, and it ought to be able to handle other complex cases.

If Lacey were an appointed county department head, she would have to sit before the Board of Supervisors and report on the failures in training, supervision or procedure that led to the mishandling of this case. But she is elected and reports to voters. It is to them whom Lacey owes her explanation.

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