Let's Look at This One More Time, OK? : D.A.'s budget looks like a walking trauma unit

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti says he has no choice but to disband the special attorney team designed to aggressively attack workplace safety, environmental violations and major fraud, effectively ending local prosecutions of these crimes. This is Garcetti's latest attempt to cope with the combined effects of dwindling county funds and an expected jump in violent-felony prosecutions resulting from the state's new "three strikes and you're out" law, which mandates life imprisonment for repeat felons.

Last Monday county attorneys stopped filing new cases involving occupational safety and health violations and environmental crimes. In the coming months, the nine attorneys who have staffed this special unit will be reassigned to handle street crime cases.

Although both the city attorney and the state attorney general could take up the baton in this area, it is unlikely either will do so. Neither has the staff, expertise or budget. Most probably, felony prosecutions of these crimes largely will cease.

Is there really no other choice?

Clearly, prosecution of violent crimes, even without a "three strikes" law, must be a high priority for any district attorney. But this is true also for white-collar fraud and workplace and environmental safety violations. The L.A. County D.A.'s office has earned an impressive reputation for its aggressive prosecution of these crimes. The D.A.'s Environmental Crimes/OSHA Division (ECOD) was the first special unit of its kind in the nation to pursue felony prosecutions. It is now the nation's largest regional environmental crime unit, having handled more than 400 cases since 1987.

Moreover, these prosecutorial efforts have not only increased compliance with workplace and environmental safety laws but also generated $13 million for the state and county through fines and restitution. Last year, for example, oil companies paid a total of $900,000 as a result of ECOD prosecutions. The team has obtained felony convictions, carrying prison terms, for Smog Check fraud, asbestos exposure and exposure of many thousands of people to airborne lead. An industrial death or life-threatening injury occurs every three days in the county; the ECOD has investigated each accident to find whether criminal negligence was involved.

Garcetti says that to meaningfully pursue these crimes he needs additional county funds to hold together this and other special units. But county supervisors, some of whom are annoyed with Garcetti for budget overruns and past threats to cease certain misdemeanor prosecutions, say that every county agency is suffering and that there are no additional funds.

Proposition 172, passed last November, made permanent a half-cent state sales tax and dedicated that revenue to public safety purposes. Garcetti says that although the Board of Supervisors duly has disbursed Proposition 172 revenues to his and other law enforcement agencies, it plans to withhold an equal amount of property tax revenue that in the past went to his office and give it to other strapped county departments.

Clearly Garcetti, like all department heads, must live within his budget. But surely there is room to maneuver here, especially when the unit at risk generates revenue and encourages broad compliance with vital health and safety laws.

On Friday a promising proposal surfaced involving representatives of environmental and industry groups. The suggestion is that these groups work with Garcetti and other officials to seek solutions to this impasse. It's hard to believe that creative minds can't work something out soon.

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