Steve Cooley became Los Angeles County district attorney in 2000 by blasting incumbent Gil Garcetti for turning a blind eye to corrupt Rampart Division police officers and to school officials who let the Belmont Learning Complex balloon into a $175-million white elephant. Yet, once in office, Cooley closed the books on both probes. Still, Cooley can claim major accomplishments that merit a second term. He has put in place sensible policies that have made prosecutorial decisions rational: The district attorney's office now bases its decision to prosecute on the seriousness of the crime and the likely punishment. That is a welcome departure from the past, when the office blindly followed rigid policies that often led to heavy-handed prosecution of minor offenses.
Cooley is certainly the strongest candidate in the field of six. Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Higgins and former Deputy Dist. Atty. Anthony Patchett, have been thoughtful and accomplished prosecutors but are without the resources to mount a serious challenge. Another deputy, Denise Moehlman, has little management experience, and environmental lawyer Roger Carrick doesn't have the breadth for the job.
Former City Councilman Nick Pacheco is Cooley's strongest rival, but he would be the wrong choice for district attorney. Pacheco, who has scant prosecutorial experience, mostly wants back on the public payroll. He still can't see why his past shenanigans involving improper fundraising and campaign tricks sparked probes by the city Ethics Commission and the district attorney.
Cooley's decisions sometimes have raised questions. The report he issued on the Rampart probe minimized the scandal and failed to address allegations in dozens of cases that officers framed and deliberately maimed suspects. The investigation into allegations that Newhall Land & Farming Co. had destroyed endangered species and then lied about it was another case of Cooley doing too little, too late. Cooley hit Newhall with one wrist-slapping misdemeanor and then dropped even that when the company agreed to dedicate a measly 64 acres of open space out of the Newhall Ranch project's 12,000 acres.
Still, Cooley's strengths outweigh those of his opponents. State law gives the district attorney power to send juvenile felony defendants to adult court. Instead, Cooley wisely continues to let judges make the calls. Ongoing grand jury probes of Los Angeles officials and a string of wins, including last week's felony conviction of Compton's ex-mayor Omar Bradley, should send an anti-corruption message to politicians throughout the county.
The Times endorses Steve Cooley for district attorney.