When does hand-delivering a check for $2 million for a worthy cause land you in hot water?
For Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who is raising money for a possible run for district attorney, it was when he proposed using that hefty sum for a program that would help one of his political allies.
The money had come from a legal settlement won by city lawyers against an outdoor advertising company. Under state law, half of the settlement must be given to the county for consumer protection enforcement and, in the past, the county has doled out those funds to the district attorney’s office — the office Trutanich may seek in next year’s election.
But when Trutanich personally carried the $2,025,000 check to the county’s chief executive, bodyguard in tow, he suggested using the money for a different purpose: testing DNA samples from rape victims.
As it happens, the head of the county agency that would have received the money under Trutanich’s proposal — Sheriff Lee Baca — has been publicly urging people to persuade Trutanich to run for district attorney.
Trutanich’s suggestion on how to spend the county’s share of the legal settlement met with a rare rebuke from his friend Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who said such a move would probably be unlawful and called it a “political ploy.”
In an interview last week, Cooley said he supports testing DNA evidence from rape victims but noted that the sheriff’s backlog of untested DNA rape kit evidence was recently cleared up. Cooley said he was skeptical of Trutanich’s motives.
“Act like you’re doing something to solve a problem that doesn’t exist — that’s a ploy,” Cooley said, adding that the decision to hand-deliver the check was “bizarre.”
With Cooley expected to retire next year, the dispute over the funds exposes a rift between Los Angeles’ two top prosecutors a year before voters will elect a new district attorney for the first time in more than a decade.
County officials ultimately rejected Trutanich’s suggestion, saying that the law required them to use the money for prosecuting consumer fraud, environmental violations and other consumer protection crimes.
But Trutanich called the decision a missed opportunity and denied any political motive. He said he has been concerned about untested DNA crime evidence, which has been a major problem for the Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD in recent years.
Trutanich argued that the legal settlement could have been used to help prevent any future backlog in DNA evidence from rapes or other crimes, and said the district attorney’s office would actually be among many to benefit.
“What greater consumer protection can there be?” Trutanich said. “There is absolutely no political motive involved whatsoever. None. Zero. Zilch.”
Trutanich, whose office received an equal amount of money from the settlement, is using his office’s share of the funds for consumer protection prosecutions, not rape kit testing. His chief deputy, William W. Carter, said that without the money his office would have to close its program that targets slum rentals, mortgage fraud and illegal billboards but that the county doesn’t face such a threat because its share of the settlement was an unexpected windfall.
Trutanich also said he did not see anything unusual about hand-delivering a large check to the county.
“I don’t put $2 million in the mail…. I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he said. “We had the best intentions and we decided to give the $2 million to the county and ask the … county to look at ways to make L.A. safer. That’s it.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said Baca has spoken to Trutanich over the years about the DNA rape kit backlog but was unaware of the city attorney’s recent suggestion. He said Baca would not comment.
Trutanich has yet to formally announce whether he will run for district attorney, but he has so far raised more than $500,000 for a possible election campaign — nearly double that of any other candidate for district attorney.
Cooley was a strong supporter of Trutanich’s successful bid for city attorney in 2009 but has endorsed his own chief deputy, Jacquelyn Lacey, in the 2012 race for district attorney. He said he has urged Trutanich to live up to his 2009 campaign pledge not to seek another office while serving as city attorney.
Cooley said last week that the dispute over the consumer protection funds was unrelated to the 2012 campaign. “Not honoring his promise to the voters and to me and everyone else is totally separate from this,” he said.
The money at the center of the controversy involves a lawsuit that the city attorney’s office filed against CBS Outdoor Inc. over its use of supergraphics on four buildings in Hollywood and downtown.
The city alleged that the firm did not have city approval for the signs. The company denied wrongdoing but it agreed earlier this year to pay the city attorney’s office $4,050,000 to settle the case.
In a letter handed to Los Angeles County Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka along with the check, Trutanich said he hoped “that these monies will be used in the processing of DNA rape kits in order to protect rape and other abuse victims in the city and county of Los Angeles.”
Fujioka said the money would have had to go to the Sheriff’s Department to satisfy Trutanich’s request.
Under Proposition 64, which California voters approved in 2004, government agencies must plow such legal settlement money back into enforcing consumer protection laws. Using those funds on DNA testing would violate the law, said William Stern, a partner at Morrison & Foerster and one of the lead authors of Proposition 64.
“Nobody would dispute that it’s a worthy cause,” he said, “but it’s not a consumer protection cause.”
A month after Trutanich handed over the check, the district attorney’s office sent a letter to the city attorney’s office warning that using the funds for anything but consumer protection prosecutions would violate the law. The July 11 letter, obtained by The Times through a public records act request, also expressed concerns that the city attorney’s office had delayed providing the funds to the county.
A week later, Carter, Trutanich’s chief deputy, sent a written response denying any delay. Carter wrote that he hoped the district attorney’s office would in the future thank city prosecutors for their hard work rather than chastising them.
“It’s no good deed goes … unpunished,” Carter said in an interview. “We make a suggestion, and people project the worst onto it.”