Trutanich sticks to a simple theme

Carmen Trutanich, right, spars with former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer at a boxing club in Hollywood. He faces four rivals in the L.A. city attorney race.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In the flashy television ad that has served as his calling card to voters, Los Angeles city attorney candidate Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich compressed his 30-year legal career into a narrow sliver: the time he spent prosecuting serious gang crimes.

Not mentioned is the mainstay of Trutanich’s work: his expertise in environmental law, developed as a young prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and finessed as a private attorney defending a number of polluters.

Over two decades as a defense lawyer, Trutanich has represented a diverse group of clients -- USC athletes, male dockworkers concerned about reverse discrimination, a former colleague wrongly roughed up by Santa Monica police. But some of his most complex and controversial cases involved companies that ran afoul of environmental laws.

Among the cases singled out by opponents in the March 3 primary: a machine company accused of dumping hazardous waste at Hunters Point Navy Shipyard in San Francisco, a gas station chain owner with hundreds of leaky underground fuel tanks and the owner of an automotive recycling business near the Wilmington Channel who had a mound of auto batteries in his yard and high lead levels in the soil.

One Trutanich rival, Westside City Councilman Jack Weiss, says that clientele should give voters pause.

“The issue is ‘Whose side are you on?’ ” said Weiss, who once served as chairman of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

But Trutanich and his supporters argue that his skills as a defense attorney might be his strongest qualification.

“That role of city attorney is about protecting and defending the city as much as prosecuting people that violate the law. . . . He has that full dimension of experience,” said Barry Groveman, who headed the D.A.'s environmental crimes unit in the mid-1980s while Trutanich worked there.

Of the five candidates in the race, Weiss and Trutanich have been the most visible. Weiss has raised the most money, with $1.6 million; Trutanich is a distant second at $729,000. The other three have substantially less.

Trutanich considers his experience as a gang prosecutor a career highlight that is critical to the work he would do at the city attorney’s office, where gangs have long been a focus (though the city attorney handles only misdemeanor cases, leaving more serious felonies to the district attorney).

On the ballot he is listed as an environmental attorney, and he says he is proud of his background in environmental law. When accused companies call him, Trutanich says “the first thing I do” is make sure they’re operating lawfully. “I’m real comfortable when I put my head down on my pillow at night,” he said in an interview late last month. “I don’t do anything that my kids would not be proud of.”

Trutanich’s foray into environmental law was not a career move he planned as a young man. As the son of the superintendent at the StarKist tuna packaging plant on Terminal Island, Trutanich worked on the docks as a teenager. He graduated from USC in 1973, and later earned an MBA there.

While working at StarKist, he began attending night law school at South Bay University College of Law, a Carson school that closed in the late ‘70s, according to the State Bar of California.

Several years after passing the bar in May 1979, Trutanich joined the L.A. County district attorney’s office and took every chance he could to go to trial. He scored a spot in the gang unit and caught the eye of superiors with what they describe as boundless energy, tenacity and an easy manner in the courtroom.

“He’s a natural alpha,” said John Lynch, a deputy district attorney who supervised Trutanich. “If you gave him a case with a group of people, and you left the room and came back in 20 minutes, there was no question about who was in charge.”

When Ira Reiner was elected district attorney in 1984, Trutanich was recruited against his will for a new environmental crimes section that Reiner hoped to make into a premier investigative unit. Trutanich said it was like shifting from flying F-18 jets to flying cargo planes. “I was going a 100 miles an hour with my ass on fire. It was fun,” he said. “What more serious cases could you try (than) robberies, murders, kidnappings?”

He struck a deal with his bosses, keeping his murder case against Barry Glenn Williams, the leader of the 89th Street Neighborhood Family Blood gang accused of shooting a 21-year-old to death, and won a death penalty conviction against him in July 1986.

Within the environmental unit, Trutanich and his colleagues employed many of the same techniques used in the gang unit. Trutanich helped organize a weeklong stakeout at a Motel 6 to monitor a trucker hauling hazardous waste who became the first person in California to go to prison for violating the Hazardous Waste Control Act.

Trutanich also handled the state’s first environmental felony trial under the waste control act, winning a conviction against Los Angeles Doctors Hospital, whose contractor was accused of dumping more than 200 gallons of diesel waste into a storm drain near a school.

His co-counsel William Carter, who later became chief of the environmental crimes unit in the U.S. attorney’s office, said Trutanich was “devastating on cross-examination” and quick to connect with juries. “He is sincere and he’s believable, and that makes him a deadly opponent in court.”

By the time Trutanich left the district attorney’s office in 1988, he had developed formidable expertise in environmental law.

In 1992, he was coauthor of an article in California Lawyer magazine detailing how to defend environmental crimes. In one passage, he and his coauthors wrote that “counsel must plan with clients to deny the authorities the material they wish to seize or at least limit the effectiveness of the search.”

The magazine credited Trutanich with pursuing a “relentless attack on the San Francisco district attorney’s evidence and tactics” during the 11-month preliminary hearing in the Hunters Point shipyard case. Trutanich argued that the Navy dumped much of the hazardous waste at the site.

In some cases, he has pursued alleged environmental violations. Trutanich sued the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 1999 over the handling of petroleum coke dust in the harbor. His client, a Terminal Island customs employee, later admitted to tampering with air monitoring devices, but Trutanich said the case highlighted the health dangers of coke dust.

Trutanich has also faced off against the city of Los Angeles numerous times -- one reason he raised eyebrows when he briefly went to work in 2005 as a senior advisor to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who is being termed out of office.

Among other matters, he advised the Coliseum Commission in dealings with the National Football League.

Shortly before going to work at the city attorney’s office, Trutanich handled the defense of Joseph Michael Zacher, the owner of the Harbor City recycling business, and negotiated a deal in which Zacher pleaded no contest to one of 18 charges and the others were dropped. “His housekeeping was bad, but he didn’t illegally dispose of anything,” said Trutanich, who hired an industrial hygienist to clean up the yard. He said there was no connection between the plea and his decision to go to work for Delgadillo.

Trutanich is currently defending two clients in litigation with the city. He is handling a cost recovery suit against the now-shuttered San Pedro Boat Works, whose owners were charged by federal prosecutors with illegally storing hazardous waste and discharging sewage into Los Angeles Harbor.

In the second case, he is representing the Wilmington-based Warren E&P oil refinery, facing eight criminal counts related to oil spills in 2007.

If elected, he said he would ask an outside ethics consultant to determine if he should have someone else handle the cases.

In the combative back-and-forth between Trutanich and Weiss in recent weeks, Weiss has railed against Trutanich’s firm for representing gun clients including the California Rifle and Pistol Assn. and the National Rifle Assn. Weiss, a gun control advocate, has circulated letters from Trutanich’s partner, C.D. Michel, threatening to sue to block the city’s gun laws. Trutanich said Weiss’ suggestion that he is defending gun groups is “a complete and total lie.” Although his partner represents the groups, he said he had never been a lawyer for either group.

Trutanich describes many of his clients as mom-and-pop operations that needed help understanding what environmental laws require.

“I say to them: ‘Listen this is basically what you have to do these days. . . . You’ve got to comply or go out of business.’ ”

Weiss was skeptical of that explanation. “I don’t think that’s the way defense lawyers such as Mr. Trutanich [get their] business.”

Four attorneys who prosecuted Trutanich clients in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties said, however, that his record of getting companies into compliance with environmental laws was very good.

Carter, who prosecuted at least three Trutanich clients, said “by the time you even started negotiating, he would get the site cleaned up.”

“He knew that if his client had done it, the best way to resolve it was to fix it.”