U.S. Atty. Levi, Capitol Probe --Painstaking and Low-Key

Times Staff Writers

David F. Levi seems an unlikely crime-buster.

Soft-spoken and bespectacled, the Sacramento-based U.S. attorney for the eastern district of California looks to be more scholar than cop.

But this son of a college president--and a U.S. attorney general--has engineered a sweeping 3 1/2-year investigation of political corruption that has rocked the state Capitol and led to the indictments of Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier) and a former top aide, plus a local sheriff and his former chief deputy. More indictments are likely to follow.

Levi, 37, one of the youngest U.S. attorneys in the nation, is neither brash nor flashy. He is methodical and contemplative.

He is so careful, in fact, that many politicians complain that he has tarnished the reputations of all elected officials by taking so long to complete his investigation. Even some FBI agents complained that Levi was cautious to a fault--reluctant to bring the investigation to an end and take his chances in court.

'All in Due Course'

Levi does not apologize for his painstaking approach. "All in due course," he says when pressed for a timetable of possible prosecutions.

While he talks loftily about the importance of cleansing the political system, he insists that he is not a crusader.

"I'm not here to remake the political world for the state of California," Levi said, then paused to find the right word to explain why not. "That would be hubris on my part."

While he seems to enjoy the headlines and television coverage that flow from a highly visible corruption case, Levi shies away from anything that might appear sensational or flamboyant. At a press conference called to announce the Montoya indictment, the U.S. attorney hardly strayed from a prepared statement--a clinical description of the charges that provided very few details. He took few questions and answered even fewer.

In an interview, he seemed less at ease discussing political corruption than talking about the law in 19th-Century England, the topic of his nearly finished doctoral thesis in history at Harvard.

Like his father, Edward H. Levi, the former University of Chicago president and law school dean who became President Gerald Ford's attorney general, Levi exchanged academia for a life of wiretaps, stings and snitches. But while Levi has left the university, the university has not left Levi.

As a boy in Chicago, Levi was not the sort who would skip school to spend the day at Wrigley Field. He is a product of the university's Laboratory School, and palled around with the sons and daughters of professors who became professors themselves. He recalled spending hours discussing Rousseau with his father when he was in high school.

Serious Charges

Such father-son talks paid off. At 37, Levi is one of the youngest U.S. attorneys in the country, in charge of an expansive 87,000-square-mile region stretching from the Oregon border to Kern County--including the richest state Capitol of all, where millions flow into campaign coffers and, according to the grand jury, occasionally fuel legislation.

On May 17, Levi announced the grand jury indictment of Montoya and his former aide, Amiel A. Jaramillo, on extortion and racketeering charges, contending that the two had used their positions to exact campaign contributions and speaking fees from those with interests in legislation. Montoya has issued a statement asserting his innocence. Jaramillo's attorney, Christopher H. Wing, has attacked the indictment of his client as a misuse of federal racketeering statutes originally enacted to prosecute mobsters.

As an outgrowth of the Capitol investigation, Levi is also prosecuting two law enforcement officials, Yolo County Sheriff Rod Graham and his former top deputy, Wendell Luttrull. The two are charged with extorting $3,650 in payments from a West Sacramento developer who at the time was an undercover informant in the investigation of the Legislature. Graham pleaded not guilty to the charge. Luttrull, who pleaded guilty, has agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Federal sources have said that other indictments are likely to follow--but only when Levi decides he is ready to move ahead.

Long Wait

And that could mean a long wait. In fact, the sources say the probe could go on for years and become a fact of political life in Sacramento.

The Montoya indictment came nine months after about 30 FBI agents armed with search warrants raided the Capitol offices of the Whittier Democrat, three other legislators and two aides. The raid was the culmination of an elaborate sting operation in which FBI agents posing as businessmen tried to enlist support for special-interest bills that would help them finance a shrimp processing plant.

FBI officials in Sacramento thought that they had essentially wrapped up the sting investigation last November, only to be told that Levi wanted even more information.

The lag between the search and the indictments has bothered legislators and attorneys for the targets. Some claimed that the delay suggested that Levi had a weak case, or no case at all.

'Less Than Fair'

"At some point, it becomes less than fair," said Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose), who is not implicated in the corruption investigation. "If you've got something on someone, you should indict them, convict them and get rid of them."

Said Montoya's attorney, Michael S. Sands, in an interview before his client was indicted: "I've been in this business 25 years and I've never seen anything like that (delay)."

For his part, Levi said simply: "It takes an enormous amount of time. If you don't give it that time, you end up with a disaster. People will say, 'What the hell were you rushing to judgment for--you have set the government's deterrence goal back by rushing.' "

Despite the criticism, the high-profile case has brought favorable attention from Levi's peers. Last December, Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh appointed him to his circle of 15 U.S. attorneys who give advice on everything from budgets to mail fraud legislation. Levi chairs Thornburgh's advisory panel on public corruption.

'Very Bright'

"You can read into it (his appointment) that he is a very bright, intelligent, well-regarded U.S attorney," said Larry McWhorter, director of the executive office of U.S. attorneys.

"He would be a welcome addition to the Bush Administration, any administration," McWhorter added.

Levi boasts an impressive resume that includes experience as law clerk to since-retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell. A clerkship with a Supreme Court justice is any law student's dream, but Levi did not even have to apply for the job.

"David is the only law clerk whom I invited to clerk for me before he had applied," the former justice said, adding that Levi proved to be "clearly one of the best law clerks I've had or known . . . at the court."

A longtime friend of Edward Levi, Powell said family ties played a part in the job offer, but so did young Levi's academic credentials: Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, in the top 10% of his law school class at Stanford Law School, president of the Stanford Law Review.

"It was the combination of his being president of the law review and knowing his family," Powell said. "I never hired any law clerk on the basis of friendship with family. The work we do . . . is too important."

Make Over Office

After he left Powell, Levi signed on with Donald Ayer, who as the new federal prosecutor in Sacramento set out to make over a U.S. attorney's office that had been a backwater compared to major offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Ayer paired Levi with George O'Connell, an experienced prosecutor who previously had worked in the fraud unit of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

O'Connell and Levi handled some of the most publicized fraud cases ever brought in Sacramento, among them a tax case in which the defendant claimed that the body is the temple of God, so people could write off food and drink as religious donations. The defendant was convicted.

They also built a case against Gilbert Chilton, a state official who ultimately pleaded guilty to taking an $800,000 bribe in exchange for arranging a $50-million loan from the teachers' pension fund on a risky oil drilling venture.

Capitol Corruption

Together the two prosecutors in 1984 turned their attention to allegations of Capitol corruption. Approval from the U.S. Justice Department for the sting came in October of the following year. O'Connell worked on the sting until he quit in 1987 to go into private practice in Los Angeles.

When Ayer left Sacramento in 1986 to take a job in the U.S. solicitor general's office, he recommended Levi as his replacement, as did Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson. The actual appointment came from then-President Ronald Reagan.

In interviews, lawyers said Levi, though young and having spent only three years as a prosecutor, was qualified for the appointment. However, a U.S. attorney's appointment often is based on politics as well as ability. Being a son of a former attorney general and a clerk to a Supreme Court justice didn't hurt.

"If it was a beauty contest, David probably would have won," said O'Connell, among the contenders for the job. "David is eminently qualified. But he knows people, too."

Fine Legal Points

Levi said: "I think that among (Justice) Department people there is a sort of affection for my dad. Maybe I'm the beneficiary of some of that. But I don't judge people by who their parents are so I don't think I'm judged that way."

Owing to his days as a law clerk, Levi reportedly is at his persuasive best when arguing fine legal points in written briefs to judges. In court, his style is not one of dramatic plays to the jury, say lawyers who have waged courtroom battle with and against him.

"He's not a gimmicky guy. He is what he seems to be. He is not a tricky game player," said Ayer, Levi's predecessor.

Levi expects to be the lead prosecutor in the Capitol corruption cases. Former colleague O'Connell said Levi is "more than capable of trying that case," but cautioned: "He's very logical, which can sometimes lead to being unemotional. Prosecutors need to be emotional at times. He is good in court, very good on paper. But there are times that he has to fire up."

'Rising Superstar'

Attorneys say that Levi could rise to the top of the justice system in a Republican Administration, or possibly win appointment to a federal judgeship.

"There's no question in my mind that David is a real rising superstar. He is more than just a courtroom prosecutor," said Federal Public Defender Arthur W. Ruthenbeck of Sacramento.

However, Levi says he does not know what he will do after he leaves the U.S. attorney's office, except to complete his thesis and finally collect that Harvard Ph.D.

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