A leading Republican candidate for the state's top law enforcement post criticized the FBI on Wednesday for inquiring about possible corruption at the state Capitol, saying that it's tough enough to be a public servant without having to operate under a cloud.
Attorney general candidate Dave Stirling, chief deputy to Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, said the FBI should not assume that politicians are corrupt simply because the bureau used a sting in the late 1980s that resulted in convictions of 14 public officials and lobbyists.
"I'm disturbed in a way at what the FBI guy here in Sacramento has laid out," Stirling told reporters Wednesday. Referring to James Maddock, special agent in charge of the FBI in Sacramento, Stirling added: "He has cast a cloud over everything that goes on in Sacramento by way of the approach he is taking."
Decrying what he sees as the federal government's "holier than thou" approach, Stirling said the FBI should not "proactively" look for public corruption in the Capitol. Law enforcement officials should open such investigations only "if they have credible evidence," he said.
"They're not an oversight agency of public officials," Stirling said of the FBI. "The voters are the oversight of public officials."
Maddock did not respond in detail to the Republican candidate's comments. But he did say that "the FBI doesn't open investigations without specific, credible information that provides a reasonable indication that there is a violation of federal law."
Stirling raised the subject as he spoke about his candidacy to replace Lungren, who is running for governor.
The issue of public corruption is central to Stirling's campaign against Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael Capizzi for the GOP nomination for attorney general in the June 2 primary.
Stirling renewed his criticism of Capizzi for the Orange County district attorney's prosecution of some political corruption cases, particularly the one pending against Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) over violations stemming from his election in 1995. Several top GOP leaders in California contend that Capizzi is prosecuting Baugh in an effort to further Capizzi's career.
Capizzi, informed of Stirling's comments about the FBI, said he was "baffled and somewhat dumbfounded."
"It's surprising and disappointing," Capizzi said, "for someone who seeks the top law enforcement job in the state to belittle the efforts of a federal agency that is charged with making sure that federal law is complied with."
Stirling, 57, spent three terms in the Assembly from 1976 to 1982, representing the San Gabriel Valley. Former Gov. George Deukmejian appointed him in 1983 to head the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and later appointed him to a Superior Court judgeship in Sacramento.
After a year in the post, Stirling left the bench in 1990 to work as Lungren's chief deputy, a post he still holds, though he has taken a leave to campaign.
In prepared comments, Stirling said Wednesday that if he is elected, he will use the office of attorney general as a "bully pulpit" to help instill a sense of values and responsibility in Californians. The goal would be to divert children from lives of crime.
Later, as he answered reporters' questions, Stirling said law enforcement officers should not turn technical violations of the law into major prosecutions. Then he turned his focus to recent comments by the FBI's Maddock.
Maddock last month announced that he was making the pursuit of public corruption the top priority of the FBI in Sacramento, and unveiled a telephone line for tips about such crimes. The announcement came as FBI agents were interviewing legislative aides and lobbyists, though Maddock says the agents have not homed in on any particular official.
"That's assuming that politicians are corrupt, they're dishonest," Stirling said of the FBI tactic. "That's a terrible message for our young people. It's tough enough running for political office today, with all the hoops you have to jump through."
Stirling said, "Something bothers me about the federal government out there, holier than thou, looking at state government operations, and saying, 'It's dishonest. We must provide oversight.'
"The FBI has gotten into trouble because of attitudes like that," he said. "I'm strong on public safety. But I'm also strong on personal liberties we in this country enjoy. I don't just assume there's crime under every rock."