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Veteran prosecutor aims to become L.A. County's first Latino, LGBT district attorney

Veteran prosecutor aims to become L.A. County's first Latino, LGBT district attorney
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos is planning to run against Jackie Lacey for Los Angeles County District Attorney. (Richard Ceballos for District Attorney)

A veteran Los Angeles County prosecutor has announced his intention to challenge Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey in next year’s election, positioning himself as a progressive alternative to the county’s top law enforcement official.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos said it is “time to restore integrity and public confidence” to the district attorney’s office, in a statement Wednesday announcing his bid to dethrone Lacey. Ceballos, who has served as a prosecutor for nearly three decades, is assigned to the office’s organized crime and hate crimes units.

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“We need new energetic leadership and someone with a progressive vision for the future who is willing and able to work with the community and adapt to the changing criminal justice reform movement,” Ceballos said. “Los Angeles deserves to have a district attorney who believes the voices in our community are part of the solution and not something to hide from.”

In his opening salvo, Ceballos appeared to be channeling a wave of other progressive challengers who have tried to unseat entrenched sheriffs and top prosecutors across California in recent years. Results have been mixed, with insurgent candidates backed by large-scale liberal fundraisers from outside the state failing to win district attorney’s races in San Diego, Alameda and Sacramento counties in 2018.

More recently, however, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva shocked incumbent Jim McDonnell by painting himself as a Democratic left-leaning candidate in the typically non-partisan race. Javier Gonzalez, who advised Villanueva in his upset victory, will play a pivotal role in Ceballos’ campaign, the statement said.

Ceballos said he had been considering running for about a year. He declined to discuss specific policy positions during a brief interview Wednesday, promising to roll out his platform in coming weeks. He said he would focus on engaging city and county residents who often complain they are ignored by law enforcement leaders.

“The community is a part of the solution to crime issues and crime problems and we’ve got to involve it,” he said.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey
Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Ceballos has previously worked in the office’s public integrity unit, prosecuting several people involved in schemes to skirt campaign finance and voting laws in Los Angeles and Lynwood. He is currently assigned to the case of a Seattle man charged with trying to run over two Jewish men outside a Hancock Park temple in what investigators have called a hate-motivated attack.

While the campaign announcement broadcast Ceballos’ potential to be the county’s first Latino and LGBT district attorney, he insisted Wednesday his campaign would center on issues, not identity.

“Being the first of anything isn’t that important,” he said. “Don’t judge me by who I am … judge me by what I do.”

Ceballos described his relationship with Lacey as “professional,” but noted he is not shy about challenging his boss. The veteran prosecutor previously sued former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti in a whistle-blower case that wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ceballos wrote internal memos claiming a sheriff’s deputy may have lied to obtain a search warrant and urged his supervisors to dismiss a pending criminal case because of the alleged misconduct.

His advice was rejected. Ceballos said he was disciplined and claimed his 1st Amendment rights had been violated. In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that the 1st Amendment did not protect government employees from punishment for criticizing their managers about possible wrongdoing.

Also a long-time prosecutor, Lacey has served as district attorney since 2012, riding into office on a wave of celebrity support that included endorsements from Sean “Diddy” Combs and NBA legend Magic Johnson. In recent years, however, Lacey has become a frequent target of activists who have repeatedly assailed her office’s seeming reluctance to prosecute police officers for misconduct or excessive force. The trend started long before Lacey was elected — the district attorney’s office has not prosecuted a Los Angeles police officer for an on-duty shooting since 2000. Lacey recently ignored the recommendation of former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck when she decided not to file charges against an officer who shot and killed a homeless man in Venice Beach.

Late last year, Lacey did file manslaughter charges against sheriff’s deputy Luke Liu for the fatal 2016 shooting of an unarmed man at a Norwalk gas station. The office has also brought high-profile murder charges against New York real estate scion Robert Durst and secured a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter from rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight in connection with the death of a Compton man during Lacey’s tenure.

"District Attorney Jackie Lacey is proud of her successful record of advancing a justice for all agenda — from groundbreaking policies on mental health issues to environmental protection to combating cyber crime and human trafficking and more,” Lacey’s campaign said in a statement Wednesday. “That's why she's building a people-powered campaign for 2020. She welcomes any and all candidates to the race."

Melina Abdullah, an organizer for Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles and frequent critic of Lacey, said an ideal progressive candidate for Los Angeles would be “willing to engage the community that elects them, rather than running from them,” and prioritize police accountability.

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She noted that local activists have also had discussions about the 2020 race with Real Justice, a national political action committee that aims to elect “reform-minded prosecutors.”

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