'Corrosive Influence of Money' in Sacramento Decried : Legislature: The outgoing U.S. attorney, who led Capitol corruption probe, suggests that reforms are needed in a system so dependent on huge sums for election campaigns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After watching the Legislature for more than a decade, George L. O'Connell--the prosecutor who brought an unprecedented series of indictments against Capitol figures--is troubled.

In an interview during his final days as U.S. attorney here, he complained that "the corrosive influence of money" has distorted the democratic process in the Legislature.

Preparing to step into private life because of the change in administrations in Washington, he wondered whether reforms are needed in a political system that depends on raising huge sums for election campaigns.

"A prosecutor isn't the good government league," he said before leaving office Saturday. "It's really up to the people of the state of California to reform the system rather than the federal prosecutor to reform the system for them."

Yet as the federal government's chief prosecutor for the sprawling Eastern District of California, O'Connell brought political corruption cases that have had as much impact on the state government as any reform-minded proposal to change the system.

He and his predecessor, David F. Levi, established the office just a few blocks from the Capitol as a watchdog of political corruption--attacking behavior long ignored by local district attorneys, ethics committees and state commissions.

The 43-year-old lawyer last week announced an eight-count indictment of Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier) and Terry E. Frost, a former legislative aide. All three have denied wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, O'Connell obtained a grand jury indictment against former Sen. Paul B. Carpenter and Clayton R. Jackson, one of the Capitol's most powerful lobbyists. Carpenter and Jackson, who pleaded innocent to the charges, are scheduled to stand trial in October. Carpenter is also awaiting a retrial in a second federal case in June.

And it was O'Connell who pursued the investigation of ex-Sen. Alan E. Robbins, who is expected to be a crucial witness in several pending cases. Under pressure from O'Connell, the Van Nuys Democrat agreed to cooperate with authorities, wearing a hidden recording device for months as he talked with Jackson and others.

Later, Robbins pleaded guilty to racketeering and extortion charges, saying that he and former California Coastal Commissioner Mark L. Nathanson had extorted $250,000 from a San Diego hotel developer. Robbins is serving a five-year prison sentence.

Nathanson pleaded innocent to charges of abusing his appointed office for personal gain and his trial is scheduled for next month.

O'Connell doesn't say that corruption pervades the entire Legislature, but he urges Californians to look at their lawmakers "with great vigilance."

"Ultimately, criminal prosecution can only deal with the most glaring examples of political misconduct," he said. "The system has certainly been distorted by the influence of money on the activities of state government."

Not everyone gives O'Connell high marks as U.S. attorney. Some targets of the corruption probe complain that he was a zealot in pursuit of imagined wrongdoing--someone trying to make a name for himself at the expense of innocent people who happened to be politicians or lobbyists or legislative aides.

An angry Nolan, on the day of his indictment, contended that O'Connell brought the case against him "despite strong reservations in his office, because he has nothing to lose. He won't have to try this case. His successor will."

Others complain about his style of administration, claiming that O'Connell was autocratic, a micromanager who kept too-tight control over his office, which includes 51 attorneys and a support staff of 66.

He was, said one of his former colleagues, "a difficult guy to get along with."

No assistant U.S. attorney could settle a case without first getting O'Connell's approval, said Carpenter's lawyer, Charles F. Bloodgood. "The agreements would not be approved or modified unless they were made less advantageous to defendants. . . . He had a reputation for being a tough-minded prosecutor."

His supporters point to his strong judgment and legal skills.

Said Christopher A. Nuechterlein, an assistant U.S. attorney and deputy chief of the office's criminal division: "In my 10-plus years with the Department of Justice, I have worked with prosecutors all over the U.S., and he's at the top of the list because of his ability to analyze complex facts and issues and because of his legal judgment."

Raised in a working-class St. Louis family, O'Connell won an appointment to West Point before deciding instead to study history at Purdue.

A Harvard Law School graduate, O'Connell cut his teeth as a prosecutor in Los Angeles as a young assistant U.S. attorney from 1980-83. Soon after transferring to Sacramento, he worked with another assistant in that office, David Levi, who became U.S. attorney and is now a federal district court judge.

O'Connell recalled that he would regularly write a motto for the week, many of them military maxims, on a blackboard in Levi's office. "Who dares, wins," was one of O'Connell's favorites.

Together, O'Connell, Levi and FBI Special Agent James J. Wedick launched the federal sting operation that has led to the conviction or indictment of 14 individuals, including Hill, Nolan and three former Democratic state senators--Robbins, Carpenter and Joseph B. Montoya.

O'Connell said they began discussing the sting of the California Legislature as early as 1984.

The three drafted a scenario in which undercover FBI agents posed as businessmen and, with the help of a hefty bankroll for political contributions and payoffs, sought legislation to help them build a shrimp-processing plant near Sacramento.

The first of the sting bills was carried by Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) in 1986.

O'Connell said the federal authorities were surprised at how easily the measure moved through the Legislature. "The bill just sailed through," he said. "We were all astonished at the votes that the bill got, given the fact that on the face of it, the bill . . . was a single-purpose, single-company bill. "

Every barrier to passage was easily removed, O'Connell said. "There was no problem that couldn't be fixed."

When the bill passed both houses, the FBI tipped off then-Gov. George Deukmejian and asked him to kill the legislation. The sting continued.

O'Connell left his job as a federal prosecutor in September, 1987, after losing out to Levi in the competition to become U.S. attorney. After a brief stint in private practice in Los Angeles, however, he returned to the Sacramento U.S. attorney's office and immediately went to work again on the political corruption cases.

In 1991, he was named by President Bush to succeed Levi as U.S. attorney.

A registered Republican appointed by a GOP president, O'Connell has repeatedly denied allegations that politics played any part in deciding which political figures to indict.

"Every political figure that is scrutinized by this office gets the benefit of the doubt," he said. "In these cases we want to have an extra high degree of confidence that we have the right person, No. 1, but more than that that we've got a case we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°