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AN ASSESSMENT : IRA REINER : As D.A., a Quiet Zeal Has Replaced Maverick’s High-Visibility Tactics

<i> Times Staff Writers</i>

The shock of white hair and the resonant baritone were familiar enough, but the cause that brought Ira Reiner to Sacramento twice within 36 hours one week last month might have surprised those only casually acquainted with Los Angeles County’s maverick district attorney.

Reiner, a Westside Democrat with strong ties to liberal politicians and many of their issues, was throwing his political prestige and the authority of his office behind bills that would:

- Toughen California’s death-penalty law by overturning several state Supreme Court rulings and broadening the number of crimes covered.

- Grant California law enforcement officials the power to tap the telephones of suspected drug dealers and other criminals.

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- Allow the governor to unilaterally block the release of prisoners ordered set free by the Board of Prison Terms.

Reiner’s unrepentant zeal in helping shepherd tough law-and-order measures through the Legislature might seem anomalous for a man who rose to political power by attacking such targets as free-spending public officials, industrial polluters, slumlords and police officers who spied on the public.

But it is not the only surprise that Reiner, who has been labeled everything from a phony to a folk hero, has sprung since he took over as the county’s top law enforcement official last Dec. 3.

In his previous positions as Los Angeles city attorney and controller, Reiner, 49, often was attacked as a grandstander who could rarely resist the urge to call a press conference. But these days, he is described by friends and even some opponents as restrained.

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‘Slightly Demagogic’

“He got ahead by being a headline grabber and a slightly demagogic politician,” said Harland W. Braun, a prominent Westside defense lawyer who has contributed to Reiner campaigns.

“All of a sudden, he becomes D.A. and he has stayed out of the headlines. . . . Now it’s important for him to be perceived as a responsible politician. I think he’s making the transition.”

Some, however, such as a veteran prosecutor who supported former Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian--whom Reiner soundly defeated in last year’s election--still have misgivings.

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“I don’t trust politicians. He’s too good a politician. . . . If you ask me how he’s doing, it’s too early to tell,” said the prosecutor, who insisted on anonymity. He added that Reiner’s frequent trips to Sacramento and his installation of a full-time lobbyist there may be more a measure of the district attorney’s political ambition than his commitment to law-and-order legislation.

Despite that criticism, most prosecutors interviewed by The Times gave Reiner high marks for what they regard as the quiet, professional manner in which he and his top aides have managed the office.

Stinging Jabs

If Reiner has been less vocal, he has hardly been silent. Like a cagey prizefighter biding his time in the early rounds, he continues to throw his share of stinging jabs.

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In January, Reiner urged property owners to quickly file claims against Denver-based Manville Corp. to recover the cost of removing aging asbestos insulation from their homes. Reiner acted as a deadline approached in federal court in New York City, where Manville had filed for protection from creditors.

In June, Reiner attacked the Metropolitan Water District for labeling as “safe” a new disinfectant introduced into the district’s water supply when, Reiner asserted, questions remained about its long-term health effects.

In July, he proposed a bold $7.4-million program to reduce jail overcrowding and court backlogs by hiring 50 new prosecutors, shipping criminal cases to the civil courthouse and opening courts on Saturdays.

And just last month, in a letter mailed to California’s 58 district attorneys, Reiner proposed tough new sanctions for air polluters and accused seven major oil companies of willfully releasing toxins into the air.

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“I suppose the . . . formal way to describe it is management by objectives,” Reiner explained during a recent interview in his office on the 18th floor of the Criminal Courts Building. “You set certain objectives, whether it be two or three or half a dozen. And then you try to work towards those.”

As the largest prosecuting agency in the state with 712 lawyers, Reiner said, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office ". . . should play a major role in the legislation that comes out of Sacramento.”

“In fact, in the past, it has not played a major role. . . . Because of the sheer size, it’s never been ignored, but it has never been a major player in terms of really shaping what goes on. . . .

“Second,” he said, “is the problem of the criminal justice system moving with the speed of a herd of turtles. . . . Everyone has talked about that. Frankly nothing has been done about it, ever, other than dealing in the most trivial way with the problem.”

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“Third, is . . . to deal with areas of public protection that have, in the past, either been ignored, or if not totally ignored, been given short shrift. And primarily that’s in the area of public health and safety.”

Reiner said it is too early to accurately assess his success in achieving those objectives.

The special unit he created to investigate and prosecute crimes involving occupational safety and health now has four attorneys assigned to it, and soon will have an industrial hygienist. But it has yet to file a criminal case, although about 20 industrially related deaths are under review.

And Reiner is the first to concede that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and court officials are unlikely to adopt the bulk of his plan for speeding up the process of criminal justice.

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Sacramento Arena

“Quite frankly, I don’t think they’re going to do a great deal. But they’re going to do something. And that’ll be the first step. And then we’re going to be there again.”

Perhaps the arena in which Reiner so far has been most successful is Sacramento politics, although few of the measures he supports have yet been signed into law.

Earlier this year, for example, Reiner’s office fought hard for a bill to allow alleged victims of child molestation to testify at criminal trials over closed-circuit television, a procedure intended to spare children the trauma of confronting their suspected attackers in court. The measure breezed through the Legislature, largely, some Reiner supporters say, because of the efforts of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the parents of youngsters involved in the McMartin child-molestation case.

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More recently, a tough capital punishment measure, drafted by Reiner’s office and carried by Assemblyman Gary Condit (D-Ceres), made it out of the Assembly Committee on Criminal Law and Public Safety, a panel controlled by liberal Democrats and a traditional burial ground for law-and-order legislation. (The bill later died in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, but was revived in the Senate.)

Not all of Reiner’s efforts have been fruitful. Despite Reiner’s strong support, the Public Safety Committee last month killed a bill that would for the first time have allowed California law enforcement officials to conduct court-ordered wiretaps.

Whatever success Reiner has had in the Legislature has not been accidental. Earlier this year, Reiner dispatched to Sacramento John Lovell, a longtime aide and former political trouble-shooter for the Modesto-based E & J Gallo Winery, to become the first legislative lobbyist for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to live and work full time in the state capital.

Reiner estimates that he spends one day a week, on the average, appearing before legislative committees. He said he does not read from prepared statements, but tries to tailor his testimony to address specific concerns of legislators.

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“Nobody wins all the time, nobody is effective all the time,” said Susan L. Aguilar, the legislative liaison for the Sacramento County district attorney’s office, “but I think (Reiner) is a very effective presence, very impressive to legislators. He speaks very well, he has his facts marshalled.” Then she added, “I wish I had that voice.”

Praise From Ed Davis

Reiner has won equally good notices from less likely corners.

“We’re delighted to see a former liberal, or present liberal, like Reiner, take a hard anti-crime posture,” said state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), a former Los Angeles police chief and champion of conservative causes, “because he can go turn some of the liberal Democrats that we can’t turn. . . .

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“Reiner is still a Democrat,” Davis added, “but he’s probably much more perceptive than most Democrat politicians about where the people are at. . . . He appreciates that the (crime) victims in California are where the people were on property taxes in 1978. They’re mad as hell.”

Still, Reiner for the most part has not alienated liberals in the Legislature, said Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), vice chairman of the public safety panel.

“We disagree on many issues, but we also, as a result of negotiation and a lot of discussion, come to some agreements,” Margolin said. “He argues his case vigorously and when we disagree he is blunt about his disagreement and we are blunt, but we go on to the next issue.”

But some defense lawyers are concerned that Reiner may go too far.

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“I was not pleased with his statements about the chief justice and some members of the Supreme Court,” said Gerald L. Chaleff, lead defense attorney for convicted Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono. Chaleff referred to Reiner’s comment in January that the high court “reflects an attitude (toward criminals) that I do not think is realistic or that follows the letter or intent of the law.”

“I think he may be overreacting to law enforcement forces,” added Braun, the defense lawyer who, among other clients, represents film director John Landis in the “Twilight Zone” manslaughter case. “I think he needs to remember that he’s a Democrat, that’s his base of power. . . . He should remember that there are a lot of people out there who are skeptical of law enforcement.”

Despite public perceptions, Reiner asserted that he has never been a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, at least on the issue of crime.

“It’s the problem of labels,” Reiner said. “As people are defined today, I would define myself as a moderate Democrat. . . .

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“I guess what it comes down to is that many of the liberal principles are principles that I hold.” But, he added, he occasionally disagrees with how those principles are put into practice.

“The doctrinaire attitude of the liberal Democrat has been that we must examine the root causes of crime. Well, indeed we should. No problem. The next step, whether it’s articulated or not, is that’s all we should do, that there is something inherently wrong with punishing people for committing crimes.”

But, Reiner said, echoing remarks he made in January at a state Democratic convention, “There is a change that is taking place in the Democratic Party. . . . The types of bills that we’re moving along through the Legislature in the past would not have had a chance because of Democratic opposition. . . .

Critics Cite Inaction

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“It was embarrassing in the past, it appears, for some Democrats to associate themselves with a crime bill. They were afraid they might have been thought of as a Republican.”

Their attitude was “facetiously put, that there’s no such thing as a bad criminal,” Reiner said.

For all his tough talk about “warehousing” gang members and increasing penalties for drug dealers, critics say Reiner has taken little action to put his ideas into practice at home.

Before he took office, for example, Reiner proposed such sweeping changes as the establishment of special divisions within the courts and the district attorney’s office to handle the crush of small-quantity drug cases. He also vowed to seek solutions to the problem of school violence.

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However, he has not yet announced initiatives in either area.

“Separate courts for narcotic cases, I think, is a good idea,” Reiner said in the interview last month. ". . . Right now, in terms of dealing with the courts, the No. 1 objective is to speed up the system. . . . But you’ll be seeing more as you go along. You can’t have a list of 100 objectives or you don’t have a list of objectives.”

Still, one senior prosecutor who, like some others interviewed, asked not to be identified, expressed concern about Reiner’s commitment to bread-and-butter cases.

“I think you have to look at what the primary role of the D.A. is--to protect the community from violent street crime,” the prosecutor said. “He is spending a lot of money on programs that are meritorious but secondary to prosecuting violent street crime. The real magic will be if Ira is able to give us more lawyers (to handle violent felonies) and go ahead with (occupational safety and health issues) and the rest of these things.”

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Although he said he was reluctant to discuss Reiner’s performance, Philibosian, the former district attorney, expressed similar doubts about Reiner’s recently announced plan to dispatch deputy district attorneys to the scene of deaths at industrial sites.

‘Crime Running Rampant’

“We’ve got violent crime running rampant,” Philibosian said. “We have walk-in killers, people are afraid to go into the streets. . . . We are certainly facing a greater degree of danger from murderers, robbers and rapists on the street than from industry.”

While the rapport between the conservative Philibosian and the county’s top law enforcement officials was “warm,” said Donald J. Burnett, head of the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Assn., relations with Reiner are “businesslike.”

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Reiner has not gone out of his way to appear at dinners and professional gatherings sponsored by law enforcement organizations, said Les Sourisseau, chief of the Montebello Police Department and immediate past president of the California Police Chiefs Assn. On the other hand, Sourisseau said, Reiner has met with many of the chiefs individually.

“My perception of him is he’s all business, which is good for the D.A.'s office and good for law enforcement,” Sourisseau said. “He’s surprised a lot of us, but there is still sort of a wait-and-see attitude.”

Relationship With Gates

“Ira Reiner went in without the support of law enforcement,” added Burnett. “I expect chiefs would be critical of his performance given the opportunity. They haven’t had the opportunity.”

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Although there has been no public hostility, the district attorney’s relationship with Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates--who once publicly called Reiner a “liar” in the wake of a controversy over police spying--apparently remains cool.

“There’s been very little professional contact between Daryl and Ira,” said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert I. Garcetti, Reiner’s second-in-command. “I can’t say that it’s unusual. When (Philibosian’s predecessor, John) Van de Kamp was the D.A., there wasn’t much contact with Daryl. . . . As to how many times Philibosian and Gates talked, I don’t know. . . . There hasn’t been any animosity as such.”

On the other hand, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block so far grades Reiner’s performance “an A.”

“We have been very comfortable and have had a positive working relationship,” Block said.

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Minimal Budget Increases

Less enthusiastic are the conservatives who make up the majority on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The board last month approved only minimal increases in Reiner’s budget, although the district attorney had requested a substantial hike.

“He seems to be trying to work with the board members,” said Deane Dana, one of the board’s conservative Republicans and a close friend of Philibosian. “But frankly, the jury is still out and the verdict is not in.”

Within Reiner’s office, however, the reviews are more positive.

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Most prosecutors interviewed by The Times, for example, appeared to have few quarrels with Reiner’s continuing emphasis on environmental crime.

The environment affects everyone, noted longtime prosecutor Harvey Giss, who has prosecuted such murder cases as the 1980 Bob’s Big Boy massacre. “I have to eat food, drink the water and live next to the sewers.”

Jalisco Probe Hailed

Giss also hailed Reiner’s June announcement of a criminal investigation of Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., the company whose Mexican-style cheese was contaminated with a deadly bacteria.

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“If you had a guy kill 60 people, you can bet five top D.A.s would be put on the case,” Giss said. “It doesn’t matter how people die, if by a gun or by tainted food.”

(Twenty-two people died in Los Angeles of illness related to Jalisco cheese.)

Deputy Dist. Atty. James W. Grodin added that prosecutors have been pleased--and to some degree, surprised--by Reiner’s tough law-and-order stance in Sacramento and by his efforts before the Board of Supervisors to raise salaries.

“Reiner’s a funny guy,” Grodin said. “The guy’s in favor of the death penalty, at least he says he is. . . . He says all the right things.”

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Several senior prosecutors also praised Reiner’s low-key administrative style and applauded him for sticking to his promises of open management. Reiner has earned respect for two key decisions--appointing popular career prosecutors Garcetti and Curt Livesay as his chief aides and granting individual deputies wide latitude in their handling of cases.

“I think the office has improved under Reiner, no question about that,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Hyatt Seligman, a distant also-ran in the 1984 district attorney’s race.

“The morale of the average D.A. is far better than it was under Philibosian,” Seligman said. “There was an atmosphere of vindictiveness and fear and politicization of the office that seemed to exist then.”

Grodin said a major factor has been Reiner’s decision to “put authority back in the hands” of longtime deputies.

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Under Philibosian, “authority to negotiate a case without having to go for approval every five minutes was taken away,” said Grodin, a board member of the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys, which endorsed Reiner.

Delegation of Authority

Reiner’s delegation of authority has appeared so pervasive that some prosecutors have questioned whether he actively participates in any but the most significant decisions. Indeed, one prosecutor privately compared Reiner to President Reagan--describing him as an official who hands over responsibility for day-to-day administration to his top aides, stepping forward himself mainly as a spokesman on major--or pet--issues.

“He doesn’t involve himself in the day-to-day running of the office. It’s pretty clear that Garcetti is in absolute control,” said a Philibosian partisan, who, like others interviewed, refused to be quoted by name.

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But Reiner’s top deputies insist that he is clearly in charge, personally makes many of the decisions on important cases and has displayed a strong aptitude for grasping the legal issues involved.

For example, Reiner personally directed the reorganization of the office’s bureau of investigation, bringing in a new chief, shifting the chain of command, and breaking up an intelligence-gathering unit that some administrators believed had become too autonomous.

Three Hours of Questions

In another instance, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lael Rubin, chief prosecutor of the McMartin child-molestation case, recalled how she was summoned to Reiner’s office early this year to brief the new district attorney on the case. Rubin said she expected the meeting to last for no more than 45 minutes. Instead, she spent nearly three hours answering Reiner’s detailed questions about facts and strategy.

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“If you go in there to tell him about a case,” asserted Assistant Dist. Atty. Livesay, “you better damn well know the case.”

“Obviously, there are a lot of different styles of management,” Garcetti said. “One is to try to have a very thorough knowledge of a lot of the details of what’s going on in an office. Another is to have specialized areas of knowledge. Reiner seems to be one who’s more interested in the latter, picking and choosing the areas in which he wants to have really detailed knowledge.”

Some critics, also citing Reagan as a model, have questioned Reiner’s habit of shooting from the hip or appearing somewhat fuzzy on details when making public statements.

Quick-Draw Approach

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For Reiner, the quick-draw approach has been an issue for years, perhaps best illustrated by his 1983 outburst against a band of “zealot” officers within the Los Angeles Police Department’s controversial Public Disorder Intelligence Division. Although Reiner never backed down, police officers and many lawyers were taken aback by the then-city attorney’s denunciation of men he was sworn to defend.

These days, the flaps are less severe--but Reiner has still managed to draw flak for his public statements on such issues as chloramine in the water supply. In that case, state health director Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer termed Reiner’s complaints “unfounded and regrettable.”

The criticism does not disturb Reiner.

“It is nothing but a diversion to say, well, OK, let’s see just how precise your knowledge of whatever the particular discipline is under study,” he said.

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“I am not an industrial hygienist. . . . I’m not interested in taking the next 10 to 15 years off for that particular speciality. However, I’m perfectly capable of understanding the underlying questions.”

Fund-Raising Efforts

One specialty that Reiner has yet to thoroughly grasp, aides said, is personal involvement in campaign fund-raising. Some are concerned that his reluctance to get on the telephone and personally lobby for contributions will affect his political future.

Reiner has vowed to run for reelection in 1988. Some insiders say they believe he will make a run for statewide office, perhaps for governor, two years later.

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But Reiner’s most recent campaign finance report shows a debt of about $600,000. While other Democrats with an eye on future races are amassing large war chests, Reiner’s aides are still laboring to get him out of the red.

“The fund-raising part of Ira Reiner’s operation is becoming much more systematic than in the past and more aggressive than it was,” said William Wardlaw, an attorney, prominent Democrat and one of Reiner’s chief fund-raising strategists.

“I think his support is much broader-based than a traditional Democrat,” Wardlaw added.

“In the future, you will see his financial base expand accordingly, because he can reach out to people . . . who would not be inspired to give money to other Democrats.”

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