When Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced three months ago that his office was wrapping up its investigation into the Rampart police corruption scandal, he made a point of informing the public that a key figure in the case -- former Officer Nino Durden -- implicated only himself and his partner, Rafael Perez, in any wrongdoing.
In explaining their decision to decline prosecutions in 82 Rampart-related cases, officials from the district attorney’s office noted that Durden “implicated no officers in misconduct other than himself and Perez.”
But transcripts of Durden’s secret debriefings with authorities, recently obtained by The Times, show that Durden did in fact accuse eight other fellow anti-gang officers of serious -- in some cases, criminal -- misdeeds, including falsifying accounts of police shootings to make the actions of officers appear more professional. Durden made those accusations in the presence of two high-ranking prosecutors in Cooley’s office, according to the transcripts.
In an interview, one of the two prosecutors, Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Hodgman, acknowledged that the office’s characterization of Durden’s testimony was wrong. The second prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter Cagney, called it “inartfully written.” Both said they viewed Durden’s allegations against his colleagues as potentially criminal, but did not believe there was enough evidence to take any case to trial.
While Cooley’s office has disbanded its Rampart task force, federal prosecutors are continuing a criminal probe of at least three officers whom both Perez and Durden accused of lying about circumstances surrounding the 1996 shooting of an unarmed gang member.
The mischaracterization of Durden’s account is fueling skepticism by critics, who say that despite tough talk about Rampart while he was campaigning for office, Cooley has since lost interest in the case.
Cooley himself would not comment, but a spokesman said the district attorney has pursued the Rampart investigation vigorously.
“The position of the office is that the Rampart investigation was a search for criminal culpability,” said Joe Scott, director of communications for the district attorney. “The charges filed, the convictions obtained and the few remaining LAPD investigations being handled by the Justice System Integrity Division are the extent of it.”
Scott added that prosecutors were faced with the task of not merely implicating officers in wrongdoing when warranted but of “providing sufficient, credible, admissible evidence to warrant a criminal prosecution.”
But Gary Wigodsky, an alternate public defender who specializes in Rampart-related cases, said the district attorney for months has been trying to suggest that Durden did not corroborate Perez’s allegations about police misconduct.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Wigodsky, who has reviewed the Durden transcripts. “What prosecutors have been saying is completely false and misleading. It’s an indication that they never wanted to get to the bottom of this.”
Wigodsky added, “I think the D.A. has some explaining to do.”
Cooley announced last November that his office was declining to file charges in 82 Rampart-related cases that had been presented to his office by detectives from the LAPD.
In a report accompanying the individual declinations, Cooley and his staff wrote that “although Durden freely admitted numerous incidents of misconduct committed by himself and Perez, he never implicated any other officer in criminal misconduct.” The document later stated that using Perez as a witness against fellow officers was problematic because he lacked credibility and, “moreover, Durden implicated no officers ... other than himself and Perez.”
In fact, Durden told authorities about two incidents in which he said he witnessed sergeants instructing officers to lie about the circumstances of shootings to make the officers’ conduct appear more tactically sound when reviewed by police superiors. In two other cases, Durden said Perez told him about the misconduct of two other officers, one involving a beating and the other a shooting case in which an officer inappropriately fired his gun.
Faced with public disclosure this week of the Durden transcripts, prosecutors backtracked on their earlier descriptions of his statements.
After acknowledging that some parts of the report were poorly written, Hodgman said the document “probably should have been more carefully reviewed.”
Defense attorney Gigi Gordon, who was appointed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court to represent people allegedly victimized by police corruption, was more blunt.
“I don’t know who wrote the report,” she said. “But my only conclusion is whoever wrote it didn’t read the transcripts.”
Public Defender Michael P. Judge said that Cooley “ought to reconsider the decision that appeared to close the books on Rampart prosecutions and find some way to create an effective investigative team that would be able to assure us that all of the misconduct and crimes have been ferreted out and officers be brought to the bar of justice.”
Such a move by the district attorney, however, is unlikely unless new information is developed and forwarded to them by police, prosecutors said.
The Rampart scandal broke in September 1999 when Perez agreed to identify other corrupt officers in exchange of a lighter sentence for stealing cocaine. Perez told authorities that officers in the anti-gang unit routinely planted evidence to frame suspects, beat up gang members and covered up unjustified shootings. Although Durden’s testimony was less sweeping than Perez’s, he said he suspected that other officers in the unit were committing crimes like he and his partner were.
As a result of the investigation into Perez’s information, more than 100 convictions were overturned and taxpayers have paid more than $40 million to settle lawsuits. Eight officers were charged with on-duty crimes. Four officers, including Durden, pleaded guilty or no contest to crimes. Three other officers were convicted of corruption-related offenses by a jury, but the judge in the case overturned the jury’s verdict. Cooley’s office is appealing the judge’s decision. One officer was acquitted of wrongdoing.
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said in an interview this week that police officials have not had access to Durden’s transcripts and were not privy to the scope of allegations against other officers.
“From what I understand, we’ve never seen them,” Bratton said. He said department officials on Thursday requested copies of the transcripts from prosecutors so he can determine whether internal investigations need to be launched.
Earlier this week, Bratton said he was dissatisfied with the department’s efforts to account for its handling of the Rampart investigation and called for an independent panel to review the LAPD’s work.