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Cooley’s donations raise questions about the line between fundraising and probes

Rene Cota was stunned when he searched the Internet and came across a $1,500 campaign contribution reported recently by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who is running for state attorney general.

The shocker, he said, was the donor — David Perez of Valley Vista Services in the City of Industry.

For about a year, Perez, who is also the mayor of the City of Industry and whose family owns the Valley Vista trash hauling firm, has been the focus of an inquiry by Cooley’s office into his private business ties to City Hall. The ongoing probe, apparently examining multimillion-dollar refuse collection and landscaping maintenance contracts, began after Cota filed a complaint.

When the city shut down his bar for alleged code violations, Cota began looking into Industry’s close-knit political culture — there are fewer than 100 registered voters, and many are related to one another or working for the city.

“It disheartens me,” said the former Anaheim police officer. It is “obviously unethical if he’s taking contributions from persons or entities” under scrutiny by Cooley’s office, he said. “It definitely shakes my confidence in the legal system.”

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Cooley’s top anti-corruption deputy says there is no connection between campaign money and the district attorney’s investigation or prosecution of public officials.

But the donation highlights a tricky choice for an elected prosecutor like Cooley. Where does he draw the line on taking money from people who could figure in an investigation?

The question has also arisen in Bell Gardens. Cooley’s campaign accepted $13,000 from City Manager Steve Simonian, a longtime friend and former aide, during and immediately after an inquiry involving two of Simonian’s bosses on the City Council.

Cooley’s campaign spokesman, Kevin Spillane, said the prosecutor’s ethical line is clearly drawn: Political fundraising has no influence on the work of the district attorney’s office. Suggesting otherwise is “ridiculous and it’s insulting,” he said. Cooley doesn’t track all the donations his campaigns have raised, he said.

And Cooley wasn’t even briefed on the City of Industry or Bell Gardens inquiries, said David Demerjian, head of the office’s Public Integrity Division. “Steve Cooley doesn’t decide which cases we open or review or which cases we close,” he said.

But the public is understandably suspicious about donations involving targets of inquiries or related entities, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonpartisan political reform advocacy group.

“The public doesn’t make a distinction between what the political, elected D.A. does and what the office does,” she said. “The D.A. needs clearer rules.... So his office doesn’t have to live with this cloud of doubt about who he is receiving contributions from.”

The Perez contribution has been criticized by a campaign aide to San Francisco prosecutor Kamala D. Harris, the Democrat opposing Republican Cooley for attorney general. In preparing this report, however, The Times independently reviewed Cooley’s campaign filings and obtained additional records and interviews. Cooley’s spokesman said raising the issue was an attempt to smear the Los Angeles County prosecutor.

Some details of the Perez donation weren’t clear. The mayor, who has previously said he carefully follows the law, didn’t respond to requests for interviews. Cooley’s campaign fundraiser believes the March contribution came by mail from the mayor, Spillane said, as opposed to a relative with the same name who is also associated with the family businesses. The mayor gave $1,000 to Cooley’s campaign in 2007 when he last ran for district attorney, records show.

In Bell Gardens, those who pushed for an inquiry involving alleged absentee ballot irregularities said they had wondered how aggressively it was pursued, even before they learned about the city manager’s contributions.

Simonian’s contribution “raises, to me, big questions,” said unsuccessful City Council candidate Cristina Garcia, whose complaint to the D.A.'s office evidently prompted the inquiry.

Martha Mendoza, a polling place inspector, said she also wrote Cooley’s office about absentee balloting irregularities after hearing complaints from Bell Gardens voters. News of Simonian’s contributions is unsettling, she said. “It doesn’t look good.”

Simonian said he had nothing to do with the vote-by-mail process and wasn’t aware of the inquiry. He said his contributions arose from a long relationship with Cooley, including heading Cooley’s investigations bureau for several years.

Cooley is “a great candidate” and should be able to accept donations from “someone who’s known him for over 25 or 30 years and considers him a friend,” he said. Simonian gave Cooley the maximum $6,500 allowed in both the primary and general contests, records show. He also gave to Cooley’s local campaign in 2007.

The voting inquiry apparently began after Garcia, a USC adjunct professor who grew up in the city, wrote Cooley’s office about alleged misconduct by supporters of some of her opponents, including Mayor Priscilla Flores and Councilman Sergio Infanzon.

Volunteers allegedly solicited support and offered to help voters fill out absentee ballots, including for residents of an assisted-living home, according to a copy of Garcia’s letter reviewed by The Times. Volunteers also allegedly offered to take ballots to the post office, she wrote.

The allegations are false, Flores said, and typical of those made by losing candidates. “Councilmember Sergio Infanzon and I were reelected by the voters of this community and that’s the end of the story,” she said.

Investigators looked into allegations involving both council members, specifically possible violations of a state law that bans going into the homes of those who have mail-in ballots to solicit their vote, according to a case closure letter provided by Cooley’s office.

Some individuals said they were “approached by the candidates” and their votes were “allegedly solicited by the candidates,” the letter says. But because of the voters’ mental disabilities and other problems, they weren’t credible, the letter says, an apparent reference to residents of the assisted-living center. “The candidates very well may have solicited votes from mail voters in their residences during the time of voting,” but no credible evidence existed to prove a crime, the letter concludes.

“We worked that case,” Demerjian said. “We talked to a lot of people.”

Spillane said Cooley deserves credit for forming a team to pursue sensitive political cases, close to 300 of which have been filed since Cooley took office in 2000.

That’s all the more reason Cooley should set fundraising standards stricter than the law requires, said Feng of California Common Cause.

rich.connell@latimes.com


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