Hicks’ District Attorney Role Changed as County Changed

Times Urban Affairs Writer

The 23-year career of Orange County Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks, who earlier this month said he will not seek reelection, is a saga of growth, controversy and political intrigue. It is, in a way, Orange County’s own story.

When Hicks became district attorney in 1966, the county was still being portrayed nationally as a quiet, law-abiding suburb of freeway refugees--people who fled not in boats from Indochina, but in moving vans from Los Angeles.

But Orange County was the fastest-growing place in the nation. And with spectacular growth came urban problems. In the 1960s, the cases making headlines for Hicks’ office involved campus protests and arrests of militant Black Panthers, and there was a crackdown on bottomless dancing and pornography. In the 1970s the focus shifted to organized crime and political corruption. By the 1980s, the emphasis was on serial killers, brutal violence committed by ever younger and younger offenders, sexual abuse and domestic violence, and, to a lesser degree, environmental polluters.

In 1966, there were only 13 lawyers and five investigators on the district attorney’s staff. Today, Hicks’ staff now includes 185 lawyers and 135 investigators. What’s more, the staff is specialized.

For example, the 63-year-old Hicks, a Republican, was one of the first district attorneys in the state to establish a special organized crime and grand jury unit, with its own team of investigators. He was among the first district attorneys in the state to set up separate units to detect and prosecute welfare fraud, consumer fraud, career criminals, gang members, sexual abuse and polluters.


“All those things came from innovations within the D.A.'s office,” said Supervisor Roger R. Stanton. “And they have been very, very effective.”

Hicks’ law-and-order image was helped in 1974 when he became the only district attorney in the United States to put LSD guru Timothy Leary behind bars on a drug conviction.

Hicks’ prominence, however, was built on the prosecution of public officials in corruption cases. During the 1970s, Hicks’ staff won the convictions of more than 44 officials and associates, including Supervisors Ralph A. Diedrich, Robert W. Battin, Philip Anthony, Republican Rep. Andrew J. Hinshaw and Assessor Jack Vallerga.

“Everything that Cecil did down there became very well known and set an example,” said state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, who has served with Hicks on various state and federal law enforcement committees. “One distinguishing feature of his career was his decision to take on public officials for wrongdoing, and that always takes a lot of courage.”

“Never once in all those years did he ever try to influence an investigation,” said John Gier, a private eye who once commanded the investigators assigned to Hicks’ organized crime and grand jury unit. “Cecil’s philosophy was, ‘I don’t care if you happen to be investigating my mother, but please let me know, because I might be having dinner with her tonight.’ ”

Hicks’ mother worked part time in a dress shop when Hicks was born in Los Angeles during the summer of 1926. His father was a truck driver.

Undaunted by a bout with polio when he was 8 or 9, Hicks was determined to excel. He went to UCLA, and tried out for the football team as an inexperienced, 140-pound senior. After his discharge from the Navy in 1948, Hicks enrolled at the USC Law School and, while a student there, married Jo Sturm, then a coffee shop waitress. They are still married and have five children, ages 26 to 39.

Hicks first worked as a travel secretary for Gov. Earl Warren, spent five months in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, and then three years in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. He became a deputy district attorney in Orange County in 1958. During the next eight years, Hicks racked up a near-perfect conviction rate while handling some of the district attorney’s toughest criminal cases. He also tried sky-diving but gave it up after landing in the hospital with several broken bones.

In 1966, the Board of Supervisors appointed Hicks to fill the unexpired term of Kenneth Williams, who was named to the bench by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown.

Since then, Hicks has never attracted serious opposition, despite a long chain of controversies.

For instance, after his office successfully prosecuted two Westminster officials, Derek McWhinney and Tad Fujita, for grand theft and launched other political corruption investigations, several county supervisors attacked Hicks and tried to dismantle various parts of his operation.

As part of this effort, the Board of Supervisors in 1974 disbanded the Orange County Intelligence Unit, housed in Hicks’ office, and later tried unsuccessfully to transfer 22 of Hicks’ investigators to Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates.

Later, Supervisor Battin, one of Hicks’ strongest critics, was himself convicted of misappropriating public funds for an ill-fated 1974 campaign for lieutenant governor.

Several other sensitive political corruption investigations were under way, partly as a result of stories in The Times. Some political activists--including defense attorneys Allan H. Stokke and Matt Kurilich--charged that Hicks, a Republican, was deliberately targeting mostly Democrats or people who were not favorites of the Republican Lincoln Club.

With Orange County rapidly urbanizing, the Democratic Party was growing--it would even hold a countywide voter registration edge briefly in 1978--and Democrats were in control of the legally nonpartisan Board of Supervisors.

But within a 10-year span, Hicks’ staff would successfully prosecute and remove from office Battin, Diedrich and Anthony and influence the decision of the board’s remaining Democrat, Ralph Clark, to retire.

Along the way, Dr. Louis J. Cella Jr., a major political fund-raising figure and friend of four county supervisors and then-state Controller Kenneth Cory, was successfully prosecuted in state and federal courts for diverting Medicare and Medi-Cal funds from hospitals he owned to finance his political activities.

And an investigation into money-laundering by Diedrich, Anthony and five co-defendants uncovered a bizarre plot in which Diedrich and political financier and loan broker Gene Conrad offered Whittier attorney Max Garrick a $50,000 county-paid job and a promise to install Garrick as district attorney--all in return for spearheading a special crime commission that would “put Hicks in jail.”

Two years later, Hicks was somewhat embarrassed by newspaper reports that members of his staff had once lost several thousand dollars of their own to a con artist who had hoodwinked them into buying stakes in Red Seas, a racehorse that, it turned out, did not exist.

Hicks, a rare sight at political gatherings, began publicly criticizing then-California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird during luncheon speeches in 1981 and was later featured in a radio ad against her.

“He had a leading role in the demise of Rose Bird,” said Supervisor Don R. Roth. “He was so far out in front on that issue and he did a great job.”

The year 1986 was eventful for Hicks.

With the help of Hicks’ staff, the U.S. attorney’s office successfully prosecuted Anaheim fireworks magnate W. Patrick Moriarty in a far-reaching mail fraud case based on laundered political contributions uncovered by The Times. The scandal brought down several politicians, including former Assemblyman Bruce Young (D-Norwalk), and was cited in part by then-Orange County Supervisor Ralph Clark in his decision to retire.

The same year, one of Hicks’ former deputies, Nick Novick, ran against Hicks, claiming that the veteran prosecutor ran the criminal justice system with an “old boys’ network.” Hicks was reelected with more than 75% of the vote.

Although the number of political corruption cases has declined, Hicks’ office successfully prosecuted former Irvine Councilman C. David Baker, a Republican, last year for forging a name on a foundation check that Baker intended to use in his underfunded, unsuccessful campaign for Congress.

Some Democrats think Hicks could be more aggressive. Attorney John Hanna, former chairman of the county Democratic Party, is critical of Hicks and his staff for not pursuing more vigorously the investigations of two Republican assemblymen--Curt Pringle of Garden Grove and John R. Lewis of Orange.

Pringle is under investigation for hiring security guards who, according to a citizens’ civil lawsuit, tried to intimidate Latinos into not voting in the November, 1988, election.

Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said the results of that investigation may be completed in a week.

Lewis has been charged with forgery in the unauthorized use of former President Reagan’s signature and endorsement in several political races in which Lewis was assisting candidates. The charges, however, were brought by Van de Kamp’s office. Hicks’ staff previously concluded--privately--that the forgery statute is aimed at instances of monetary gain and that the odds of sustaining a conviction using the forgery statute in a political endorsement case were not favorable. The Los Angeles and Sacramento County district attorneys’ offices similarly passed on the case.

Throughout, Hicks has been an enigma. He has not held flashy press conferences or attempted to parlay his success into a career in statewide politics.

Even so, he has been important in GOP local politics. “His endorsement and the lending of his name is consummately valuable in Orange County politics, and it has been lent with very, very careful concern on his part,” said county Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes.

Capizzi, who led the prosecution of the political corruption cases, has said that Orange County’s growth in the 1960s and 1970s made the area ripe for ambitious, greedy politicians and business executives fearful of not obtaining favorable government rulings.

But a new group of elected officials took over.

“I think that Cecil and the efforts of this office have been a significant factor in bringing that about,” said Capizzi, considered to be Hicks’ likely successor. “His resolve to clean up the political corruption--that’s a tough thing to tackle. He could just as easily have chosen to look the other way and shrug it off.”

It is a new era of economic hustle, Capizzi admitted, in which looking out for No. 1 seems to be the credo. Still, he said, the reduced number of corruption cases lately means that “we have good public officials.”


District attorney

Born in Los Angeles in 1926. His mother worked in a dress shop; his father was a truck driver. Contracted polio as a child. Attended UCLA as an undergraduate and USC Law School. Served in the Navy. Married with five children.

Started as a travel secretary for California Gov. Earl Warren, then worked in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Became a deputy district attorney in Orange County in 1958.

Was appointed district attorney in 1966 to fill the unexpired term of his boss, and has easily won reelections since. Became prominent by prosecuting public officials in corruption cases. Was among the first in the state to establish special units for organized crime, welfare fraud, consumer fraud, career criminals, gang members, sexual abuse and polluters.


Former county supervisor

Convicted in 1976 campaign money-laundering case. Convicted in 1979 bribery case involving a supervisorial vote to remove Anaheim Hills land from an agricultural preserve in favor of development.

Forced from office, imprisoned, later released. Died in San Diego last year.

Philip Anthony

Former county supervisor

Pleaded no contest to 1976 campaign money-laundering charges involving Diedrich and four others.

Defeated for reelection in 1980. Became lobbyist. Now lives in north San Diego County.

Robert W. Battin

Former county supervisor

Convicted in 1976 of misusing his county-paid office staff and county office machines and materials in his unsuccessful 1974 bid to become lieutenant governor.

Forced from office, served brief jail term in work-furlough program. Practices law in Santa Ana.

Louis J. Cella Jr.

Physician, major politicalfund - raiser

Convicted in state and federal courts in late 1970s for diverting Medi-Cal and Medicare funds from Orange County hospitals he owned to his personal political activities.

Served prison term. Lives in San Diego area.

Andrew J. Hinshaw

Former congressman

Convicted in 1976 for bribery committed while serving in his former capacity as Orange County assessor and for misusing his county-paid office staff in his 1972 campaign.

Served prison term, later worked in family lighting business. Last known address was in Mission Viejo.

W. Patrick Moriarty

Former businessman

Anaheim fireworks magnate convicted and imprisoned in 1986 on federal mail fraud charges in connection with illegal campaign contributions. He was freed from federal prison in November, 1988, after serving 29 months of a five-year prison term.

C. David Baker

Former Irvine councilman

Convicted last year of forging a name on a hospital foundation check that he intended to use as a loan to his unsuccessful 1988 campaign for Congress.

Served term involving probation and community service. Lives in Tustin.

Rose Elizabeth Bird

Former chief justice of California

Recalled by California voters after a campaign waged by death-penalty proponents. Hicks was among the first to speak out against her and was a leader in the recall effort.