A new era begins today in the U.S. attorney’s office as former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Nora M. Manella takes the reins, vowing to use her 185 lawyers to crack down on environmental crime, illegal weapons trafficking and scams directed at the poor while emphasizing the ethical responsibilities of prosecutors.
For the first time in more than a decade, the top federal law enforcement official in seven Southern California counties, stretching from San Bernardino to San Luis Obispo, will be a prosecutor appointed by a Democratic president.
“It’s a tremendous responsibility and I hope a tremendous opportunity to make a positive impact on civil and criminal law enforcement” in the most populous judicial district in the nation, Manella said in an interview.
Although she said she was “impressed” by the lawyers in the office, Manella--who served as an assistant U.S. attorney here from 1982-90--made it clear that there will be changes, some prompted by new Justice Department policies giving U.S. attorneys greater discretion to decide the severity of criminal charges filed.
Manella said she was particularly pleased that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has scrapped guidelines set down by former Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh that directed federal prosecutors to lodge the most severe charges they could and take a very hard line in regard to plea bargaining.
Although some defend the soundness of that approach, numerous critics have said the policy was so rigid that many cases went to trial needlessly because defendants felt they had nothing to lose.
“I welcome the opportunity to use the discretion we have been given,” Manella said.
But Manella, who has sent plenty of people to prison as a prosecutor and judge, stressed that her willingness to use discretion did not mean she would be soft on crime.
A graduate of Hollywood High School, Wellesley College and USC Law School, Manella also said that she planned to increase the office’s community outreach.
“During the last 12 years, not a lot has been done to tell people around the country that U.S. attorneys’ offices are there to vindicate the rights of all, not just the wealthy or the temporarily dispossessed,” she said.
On the other hand, she credited her predecessor, former U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers, for increasing outreach, and lavishly praised the work of federal prosecutors in the successful case against Los Angeles police officers who violated the civil rights of Rodney G. King.
“There are some cases so important both because of the merits and symbolically that even though difficult they must be brought,” Manella said.
“The King case was a perfect example--a case too important to be ignored by the federal government, especially when we were talking about the vindication of federally protected rights as a result of overreaching by law enforcement officers.”
Manella also stressed that it was important for her “to inspire people in the office to be the best, not just in terms of legal proficiency but also of moral probity.”
“There is no higher priority that any prosecutor’s office can have than instilling a sense of ethics and moral probity,” she said.
She took pains to say she was not criticizing anyone or making any judgments about the training lawyers in the office have received.
Nonetheless, her remarks came in the wake of a recent blistering critique of the U.S. attorney’s office here by a federal appeals court that reversed a narcotics conviction because of a prosecutor’s ethical violation--concealing significant information from the defense. The judges lambasted the prosecutor’s superiors for failing to properly supervise him and for failing to acknowledge the extent of his misconduct.
Almost as significant as Manella’s ascendancy is the retirement of Robert L. Brosio, chief of the criminal division in the office for more than a quarter-century. Brosio played a key role in setting policy, hiring, deciding whether cases should be filed and serving as the office’s institutional memory.
He rarely talked to reporters but acknowledged in a relaxed moment last year that while serving under a dozen U.S. attorneys he had signed more indictments “than anyone in the history of the republic.” He quipped: “I think my record has a better chance of standing than Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak because people have a good reason to challenge his record.”
“It saddens me to lose Bob Brosio,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer, one of the lead prosecutors in the King case. “He shaped the office. He made it what it is--as good a legal office as you will find in the country.”
Still, Clymer predicted a smooth transition because the three people who will be leading the office--Manella, her chief assistant Steve Zipperstein, 34, and Richard Drooyan, 43, Brosio’s replacement--all have served in the office in prominent roles. Manella and Zipperstein served as head of the office’s appellate unit. Drooyan was chief assistant from 1984-1988 under U.S. Atty. Robert Bonner.
Zipperstein, a white-collar crime specialist, has been on temporary special assignment in Washington D.C. for the past 18 months as counsel to the assistant attorney general for the criminal division. Drooyan, who specialized in public corruption cases as a prosecutor, has been in private practice in civil litigation in Los Angeles in recent years.
Drooyan was one of 13 contenders to become the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles after Bowers, who spent a decade as a federal prosecutor and is now a candidate to serve on a special Justice Department team that will be investigating war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
After a lengthy screening process, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) recommended Manella for the $113,500-a-year job and President Clinton nominated her. She was confirmed by the Senate in December.
Though Manella is a Democrat, there will not be immediate dramatic shifts because the office traditionally has operated on a nonpartisan basis, said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, who preceded Manella as head of the U.S. attorney’s appellate unit in Los Angeles.
“But you will see changes,” Levenson said. “I think that this office will reach out even more to the community and not be locked in to priorities that were set before.”
For her part, Manella said the office will continue to prosecute complex white-collar crimes, defense fraud, major narcotics violations and health care swindles because those are appropriate cases for federal prosecutors.
She also said it is important for her to come up with some creative approaches to how federal prosecutors can make an impact on violent crime, without tripping over local authorities who have the primary responsibility in this arena.
“We’re not a second district attorney’s office,” she said. “They file maybe 60,000 cases a year and we do maybe a thousand . . . We can’t do every carjacking.”
One new priority might be greater concentration on illegal weapons trafficking. “I would be delighted” to bring more cases of this type, Manella said.
“The proliferation of guns is one of the main contributors to violent crime. . . . I can think of few areas where our resources could be better spent.”
Though she said she has a “huge mandate” as the U.S. attorney, Manella will have to make some tough choices about launching new initiatives because she will be operating with diminished resources. The office’s authorized strength is 215 attorneys, but it has never had that many and now has 185 lawyers, down from a peak of 206 in 1992.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles has been understaffed for years, considering the size of the area for which it has responsibility. There is one lawyer for every 91,000 residents, compared to one lawyer for every 25,000 residents in the Manhattan office in New York.
Rep. Gary Condit (D-Ceres) recently called on the attorney general to take corrective action about the staffing pattern, which he said resulted in the U.S. attorney’s office in California having to turn down 46% of the major bank and thrift fraud cases referred by the FBI.
Despite its relatively small size, the office has long been considered one of the most prestigious in the country and has won a number of big cases recently. Still, there has been mounting criticism from criminal defense lawyers, such as Barry Tarlow, that younger lawyers in the office are increasingly using “the same kind of hardball tactics that have become so prominent in civil litigation.”
Also troubling have been scolding comments from U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. that the office does not have nearly enough ethnic minorities in positions of authority and that young white prosecutors were making their reputations on the backs of minority defendants.
Manella said the office should do better on diversity issues, but said it has been hampered by a hiring freeze. One of her first acts was to elevate an experienced Asian-American prosecutor, Jean A. Kawahara, to head the office’s Orange County branch, and to elevate two other women to ranking positions in the civil division.
On the other hand, her first two picks for her key assistants were white males--Drooyan and Zipperstein. Manella indicated that she would bring minorities and women into greater positions of responsibility, including key roles in big cases, which would make them more likely candidates for important supervisorial jobs.
“The office reflected for years a prior ethos of the old-boy network,” Manella said. “You don’t change that overnight.”