Did Steve Cooley's office neglect Bell probe?

One after another, the three Bell police officers sat down and told stories of possible corruption in their city to Los Angeles County district attorney's investigators.

The veteran officers, who met secretly with investigators at the district attorney's downtown L.A. headquarters, say they spoke of illegal vehicle seizures, voter fraud and other misconduct.

That was a year and a half ago — and the district attorney's office quickly dropped the matter, according to James Corcoran, a now-retired Bell police sergeant who believes he was the first to approach the investigators. His account was verified by the other two officers.

"I think they were busy and they didn't think it was a big deal," Corcoran said of the district attorney's office. "It was like 'Stand in line,' and it was a long line."

With Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley running for state attorney general and airing campaign advertisements that feature the Republican's efforts to prosecute Bell officials, the question of whether his office failed to follow up promptly on corruption allegations has become politically sensitive. Backers of his Democratic opponent, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, say Cooley's deputies blew the Bell investigation early on.

In July, The Times reported the unusually high salaries paid to Bell's top administrators, and a preliminary inquiry by the district attorney's office into the pay levels of City Council members became a sweeping corruption probe, resulting in the arrests of eight current and former officials.

Cooley and his deputies deny that they were slow to act or that election motives eventually speeded the investigation. But they have offered varying timelines for the Bell probe and differing descriptions of its scope in the initial stages.

In August, Cooley told the San Francisco Chronicle that his investigators arrived in Bell in March — nearly a year after Corcoran and his colleagues say they met with investigators — and were focusing on whether the council salaries of about $100,000 were legal.

But Cooley's staff has since insisted that the Bell investigation took root in the spring of 2009 and remained open all along. Internal interview reports from the district attorney's office, which The Times has reviewed, confirm that investigators questioned Corcoran and two other Bell police officers in April 2009. But the officers say prosecutors ignored the information they provided.

Deputy Dist. Atty. David Demerjian, who heads the office's Public Integrity Division, said that the vehicle seizures did not appear to be a state crime and that the Bell officers did not give investigators enough specifics about the other allegations.

"We never claimed to be proactive," Demerjian said of the division.

He acknowledged that the auto seizures could violate federal civil rights laws but said his office did not refer the allegations about them to federal authorities. He did not elaborate.

Corcoran, who quit the department in April and filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Bell, said he believed the district attorney's office shelved all of his complaints, regardless of whether they fell under state or federal jurisdiction. "There was nothing," he said. "It was a black hole."

One of the other officers requested anonymity because he is involved in the Bell investigation. The third, Sgt. Art Jimenez, said the investigators "told us they were going to … get back to us, but they never did.

"The next time I heard from anybody was when the story [on the administrators' pay] broke," he said.

Corcoran said the investigators asked the officers to enlist an elected official to back up the claims of corruption. He said he and his colleagues were floored.

"My thinking was, 'OK, what am I, chopped liver?' " Corcoran said. "Here we are, three cops, asking for help, and they want our allegations substantiated by an elected official? As you know, an elected official is often part of the corruption."

But Corcoran said he persuaded then-Councilman Victor Bello to send a letter to investigators notifying them that he had information about a range of corrupt actions, including bribery, civil rights violations, election fraud and unethical retirement deals.

Demerjian responded to Bello in a May 19, 2009, letter — a copy of which The Times has obtained — that asked him for "more detailed information" and "whatever evidence you have." The letter said the case would be closed after 30 days if the office did not receive additional material.

Bello wrote back on June 17, 2009, with allegations that a city official possibly had accepted bribes to approve building permits, sold goods confiscated from illegal vendors for personal gain and falsified ballots. His letter also said that then-City Administrator Robert Rizzo stopped an investigation of the official and that "this represents but a fraction of the issues involving Mr. Rizzo and alleged corruption."

Corcoran has released copies of Bello's letters to media organizations, including The Times. He said he helped Bello write them.

"We couldn't crack the case for them, but we gave them what we had," Corcoran said.

Demerjian said: "A letter that says Robert Rizzo is corrupt does not lead to an investigation."

He said he had no regrets that the office did not pursue all of the allegations more aggressively last year. "If I look back now at what they gave me," he said, "I would have the same attitude now that I had then."

Corcoran said he contacted the district attorney's office two more times early this year and on the second attempt persuaded an investigator to hear him out. The investigator, Corcoran said, soon began to zero in on the salaries paid to council members, including Bello, who stepped down from the panel last year.

About three months later, Demerjian told The Times that the council pay inquiry was still preliminary.

Then The Times published the salaries of Rizzo ($787,000), then-Police Chief Randy Adams ($457,000) and then-Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia ($376,000). Cooley's office expanded its investigation, and Bello was among the current and former council members charged with breaking the law by taking pay for allegedly doing little or no work.

In his lawsuit, Corcoran claims that his efforts to expose corruption prompted Adams to force him out of the Police Department. An attorney for Adams said he did nothing wrong, and the city has denied the allegations in the suit.

Corcoran said Bello, given his overtures to investigators, should not have been charged. "Victor Bello went to the mat on this," he said.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.

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