For Cooley, a Rare Indictment of a High-Profile Political Player
On the day he was sworn in more than six years ago, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley pledged to clean up public corruption, repeating a quote from former Dist. Atty. and state Atty. Gen. Evelle Younger: “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
Within weeks, he had set up a public integrity division to go after suspected crooked politicians and illegal influence peddlers. Since then, he has prosecuted dozens of officials and political players, but he has also been criticized for hitting mainly small targets, such as officeholders in poor cities, while failing to charge major figures in Los Angeles city politics.
Now, with his announcement Wednesday of the indictment of former Los Angeles City Commissioner Leland Wong on bribery, conflict-of-interest and embezzlement charges, Cooley may have hooked a big fish.
Cooley’s handling of allegations involving Wong had come under scrutiny before. In October 2003, The Times reported that he had failed to pursue a lead that Wong had illegally pressured a vendor at Los Angeles International Airport to steer business to relatives of lobbyist Art M. Gastelum. Wong said he had done nothing illegal.
The same week, City Controller Laura Chick met with Cooley to go over an audit her office had conducted of the airport, the Port of Los Angeles and the Department of Water and Power. “I don’t think they were aware of or were looking at these things before,” Chick said of Cooley’s office.
Cooley said Wednesday that his office and federal law enforcement officials had in fact been looking into possible corruption involving Wong before Chick’s visit.
Matthew J. Dalton, a former deputy district attorney who said he quit the office partly in frustration over Cooley’s handling of “pay to play” allegations involving Wong and others, called the indictment “great news.”
He said, however, “it took Cooley a long time to figure it out.... I think [The Times] embarrassed him with that article.”
Public corruption cases can take a long time to build, Cooley said Wednesday. It is wrong to mistake the lengthy process for inaction, he said.
Cooley said his public integrity unit “had to start from scratch.... When I came in, there were two or three cases pending.”
From 2001 to 2005, Cooley’s office filed 125 felony public integrity cases. Three of those were dismissed, 87 resulted in plea agreements and 11 went to jury trials, said David Demerjian, head of the district attorney’s public integrity division. Ten of the 11 cases that went to trial resulted in convictions, he said. The remaining 24 cases are pending.
Demerjian and Cooley cited prison sentences for officials in Compton and Inglewood, and the conviction of Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow on campaign finance violations as successes.
Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles nonprofit group that studies campaign finance and ethics, said Cooley “has done much more than [previous] Los Angeles district attorneys and most D.A.s in the state” in prosecuting public corruption.
“These are very tough cases for an elected D.A.,” he said. “You’re going against potential allies, sometimes fellow elected officials and those with deep pockets to hire attorneys.”