Cooley makes case for a third term

Times Staff Writer

As he waged a successful campaign to become L.A.'s top prosecutor eight years ago, Steve Cooley blasted then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti for seeking a third term and vowed he would never do the same. "If you can't accomplish what you're going to accomplish in two terms," he declared, "move on."

That was then.

Today, after serving two terms as district attorney, Cooley has no plans to move on or make good on his 2000 pledge to voters. He said he's running for reelection now because none of his top aides is interested in the job and he has new goals to achieve.

"I see situations out there that maybe only I can fulfill," said Cooley, adding that he would not run for a fourth term. "I have a sense of where we're going. . . . I think I can lead in the right direction."

With the June 3 primary approaching, the 61-year-old prosecutor faces little competition and is considered a shoo-in. Cooley could become the first L.A. County district attorney to win a third term in more than 70 years.

Unlike Garcetti, Cooley enjoys support from all sides of the justice system.

Police unions applaud his public safety record. Defense lawyers said he employs an even-handed and rational approach to the state's tough three-strikes law. And open government advocates said he is a model of transparency compared with district attorneys throughout the state.

His supporters also praised him for aggressively pursuing political corruption prosecutions and for helping diversify the ranks of his office, which, with more than 1,000 attorneys, is the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation.

Cooley, nonetheless, has his share of critics.

He has been accused of going soft on bad cops. He has alienated other district attorneys in the state with his talk of reforming the three-strikes law. And he came under attack for not moving more aggressively against Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese leaders for their role in protecting accused pedophile priests.

At first glance, Cooley appears out of place in the highly politicized job that pays him $236,829 a year. Hardly a household name, the burly prosecutor tends to shun cameras and flashy news conferences.

He has also earned a reputation for frank talk -- sometimes too frank. He compared the California District Attorneys Assn. to the Soviet Politburo during a dispute over his three-strikes policy. Speaking publicly to an audience of attorneys, he used the F-word, saying he was doing things his own way and if the association didn't like it, " . . . them." And he drew heat three years ago when he called the decision by jurors to acquit actor Robert Blake of murder charges "incredibly stupid."

Overall, Cooley has avoided making major blunders in public. He has benefited by not being saddled with the type of high-profile loss that can cripple a prosecutor's career.

Garcetti's popularity, for example, was badly dented by O.J. Simpson's acquittal. Ira Reiner's career was tainted by acquittals in the McMartin Pre-school molestation case.

Cooley's own record on high-profile cases is mixed. Last year, he won a conviction in the 1988 slaying of racing legend Mickey Thompson. And his prosecutors secured convictions last month against two elderly women accused of killing homeless men after taking out life insurance policies on them.

But his office lost the murder case against Blake and failed to win a conviction against record producer Phil Spector, a case that ended in a hung jury and is expected to be retried this year.

Legal observers say Cooley's low-key style has helped shield him from much of the blame.

"He's had a smoother path in front of him, but I think he's also more careful as he walks down that path," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor.

And though he has some fierce internal critics, the mood among his prosecutors, many of whom were in open revolt under Garcetti, is by comparison calm under Cooley.

"Some people, their basic personality brings conflict, but his brings stability," said Reiner, who was the county's district attorney from 1984 to 1992. "He has everything under control."

A career prosecutor who joined the office in 1973, Cooley said his greatest legacy will probably be the 333 prosecutors he has hired during his second term. The recruitment drive followed years of budget cuts and downsizing and has improved the diversity of the office, he said. Statistics show that he has boosted the number of women and minority attorneys in his office.

But he also described his effort to root out public corruption as an enduring achievement. The public integrity division, which he created soon after he became district attorney, has filed felony charges in 183 cases, winning convictions in 156. Its targets have included campaign contributors, school board members and city council members. One of the unit's notable prosecutions was against former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley, who was sentenced to three years in prison for misappropriating city money.

As part of Cooley's public corruption efforts, he set himself up as the local enforcer of the state's open meetings laws.

In his first week of office, Cooley said he learned that a reporter had been illegally kicked out of a Los Angeles Unified School District meeting. When he asked about the incident, prosecutors responded that they had no experience in such cases.

Since then, his office has sent 74 reprimand letters calling on elected officials to remedy violations of the state's Ralph M. Brown Act.

The actions drew praise from open government advocates, who also said Cooley has ended the practice of seeking gag orders and opposing cameras in the courtroom. Last year, he championed legislation that allows district attorneys to release more records about their own operations and the criminal histories of defendants.

"I think he's the model," said Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., which helped draft the legislation with Cooley.

For a prosecutor who touts himself as tough on crime, Cooley has won considerable support from an unlikely source: defense lawyers. Many praise his handling of three-strikes cases. Under Cooley, prosecutors rarely seek life sentences for repeat offenders unless their latest offense involves a serious or violent crime.

In 2006, Cooley pushed for statewide reform of the law to limit when life sentences could be pursued. The legislation, which died in Sacramento, drew the ire of many prosecutors across the state but also won Cooley friends among defense lawyers.

"I think he's concerned about justice and he's concerned about fairness," said Robert Kalunian, chief deputy for the Los Angeles County Public Defender's office.

Cooley said he intends to use a third term to build on his initiative to enhance training for law enforcement officers and prosecutors in the fight against gangs and high-tech crimes, which he called the "tsunami of the future."

Despite his accomplishments, Cooley has been dogged by criticism that he lacks the courage to take on tough cases.

During his first term, he opted against filing charges over the Belmont Learning Complex, despite his campaign promise to aggressively investigate the fiasco surrounding the school's construction. Over the objections of two prosecutors, the office also dropped a criminal probe of Newhall Land & Farming Co. into whether it lied about the presence of an endangered flower on its property. The matter was settled when the firm agreed to create a preserve for the plant.

During his second term, Cooley condemned the Los Angeles archdiocese's handling of the sex abuse scandal as a "moral failing." But John C. Manly, a civil attorney who represents victims of abuse by priests, faulted Cooley for not doing more to build a case against Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and other top church officials for their failure to alert police to the allegations as they moved accused priests from parish to parish.

District attorney's officials said they considered charges but did not have enough evidence to file a case. Cooley said state law did not require the clergy to report sexual abuse until the late-1990s. He said his office had received no complaints about the church failing to report abuse since the law went into effect.

"It was wrong. People got hurt, but since there was no law against it, it wasn't criminal," he said about the reporting requirements. Perhaps Cooley's biggest failure as district attorney, according to critics, is his handling of police misconduct cases. "His only blind spot is cops," said Kalunian, the chief deputy public defender.

During his epic election battle with Garcetti, Cooley made the unfolding Los Angeles Police Department Rampart corruption scandal one of his campaign's top issues, vowing to get tough on police misconduct if elected.

But Cooley declined to file charges in dozens of Rampart-related cases and issued a report that many said minimized the extent of the scandal.

"He inherited the Rampart investigation from Garcetti but essentially snuffed out the investigation after he won the election," said Deputy Alternate Public Defender Gary S. Wigodsky.

Under Cooley, the unit that handles police misconduct prosecutions filed charges in 4% of cases referred by the LAPD involving allegations against its own officers. A Times review of the unit under Garcetti found that it had filed charges in nearly 8% of LAPD referrals.

Cooley attributed the lower rate of prosecutions to his push to get law enforcement agencies to send more referrals for his office to review. He said voters should evaluate him on his entire record.

"You look at the big picture. . . . What we do in court speaks for itself. By historical comparison, we've performed marvelously," he said.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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