Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Keyes Prosecutes All Five County Supervisors—Becomes a Criminal Defendant Himself
By ROGER M. GRACE
Forty-Seventh in a Series
ASA KEYES, Los Angeles’ district attorney, on Oct. 5, 1926, spent most of the morning in Division 2 of the Los Angeles Municipal Court leading prosecution efforts in the preliminary hearing for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and others on obstruction of justice charges. The DA ducked out at one point in the late morning because he needed to appear in Div. 15.
Keyes went down from the Seventh Floor of the new Hall of Justice at Temple and Broadway, out into a clear, warm day, walked a few yards to the Municipal Courts Building located immediately to the north, at 330 N. Broadway, went up to the Fourth Floor, and into the courtroom of Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge William S. Baird. Keyes had no prosecutorial duties to perform there; rather, he came before Baird to be arraigned on felony charges.
Keyes was accused, in eight counts, on charges of misusing public funds.
The charges were preferred the previous day by the five members of the Board of Supervisors. They brought their typed complaint with them when they, along with three other county officials, made a formal surrender in the courtroom of Judge Charles D. Ballard. Keyes had filed a criminal complaint against the officials charging them with embezzlement of public funds and other offenses…and they struck back.
R.F. McClellan, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, swore to the complaint before Ballard, and the complaint was filed...which was enough then to set the criminal process in motion. The judge said that Keyes could “suit his convenience” in appearing for his arraignment.
The Los Angeles Record’s report on Oct. 5 says that Keyes “who has assisted at the arraignment of hundreds of criminals during his career as a prosecutor, had the novel experience of arraigning himself today....”
The Examiner’s account the next morning remarks that the proceeding “stands out as the most informal arraignment in the history of the county,” explaining:
“Mr. Keyes was allowed to come to court at will and no mention of bail was made following the reading of the complaint.”
The setting of a date for Keyes’ preliminary hearing was postponed for a week, at the DA’s request.
Leaving that courtroom, Keyes reverted to his role as prosecutor, nonchalantly returning to the McPherson proceeding in the courtroom of Judge Samuel Blake as if the arraignment of the chief prosecutor of the county were a routine matter. He was absent “only for a few minutes,” according to the Times.
(Baird, Blake, and Ballard were all charter members of the Los Angeles Municipal Court which had been inaugurated the previous Feb. 1; they had all been judges of the Justice Court, and all went on to serve on the Los Angeles Superior Court.)
The Oct. 7 issue of the Record (a newspaper favorable to Keyes) includes this analysis by a reporter:
Much of the interest in a single individual these days at the Hall of Justice has shifted from Aimee Semple McPherson to Asa Keyes, district attorney.
Keyes is the storm center just now for an extraordinary upheaval.
Whereas for the last week everybody entering Judge Samuel R. Blake’s courtroom has been straining their eyes to stare at Mrs. McPherson—
They are now anxious to get a look at Keyes—the district attorney who has caused a whole board of supervisors to be arrested and who is now the target for their ire and is facing what he calls “a weakly retaliatory charge.”
How is he acting now that he, too, is under fire, this district attorney who caused one of the biggest upheavals on record in Los Angeles….?
Is he showing the strain—becoming nervous, self-conscious now that he knows so many eyes are upon him?
No—Asa Keyes, even with the heavy burden of responsibility that the McPherson case, with its intense partisanship has cast upon him—with the board of supervisors and their followers heaping anathema upon him—is just being himself—just being the district attorney of Los Angeles county.
Shortly after the charges were filed against them on Oct. 4, the five supervisors jointly issued a press statement which said, in part:
“The District Attorney has evidently precipitated this matter to camouflage a situation in which he was about to find himself. The law provides the District Attorney with a secret service fund of $5000 per year and more only at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors.
“Since July to date Mr. Keyes has been granted $10,000 by this board and there is now before the board a request for an additional $5000. Upon receipt of this latter request, the Board of Supervisors notified Mr. Keyes to appear before the board and explain some of his expenditures from this fund, since an investigation of the fund disclosed that probably more of the fund had been illegally spent than had been spent legitimately. Evidently the District Attorney does not relish the idea of attempting to explain some of his expenditures from this fund, which, in our opinion, are clearly illegal.”
The first seven counts alleged payment of fees to outside counsel who handled criminal appeals, and the eighth was based on a disbursement of $5,000 to Sheriff William Traeger in connection with enforcement of a state Prohibition statute, the Wright Act, and other such activity. It was not alleged that Keyes had pocketed any of the money, as suggested by McPherson in a broadcast.
What was commonly known as a “secret service fund” was not so denominated in the statute providing for it, nor did the statute restrict the fund, as it seems to have been popularly supposed, to use in secret criminal investigations. Political Code §4308 began:
“There is hereby created in each county a fund to be known as the district attorney’s special fund....[T]here shall be in such fund at the beginning of each fiscal year available for use by the district attorney, the following amounts: In counties or cities and counties having a population of ninety thousand or more the sum of five thousand dollars ($5,000)....”
The statute went on to say that in such counties, the supervisors could, “[i]n their discretion,” allocate additional sums to the fund. Sec. 4308 continued:
“All such sums may be used by the district attorney for the expenses incurred in criminal cases arising in the county…and for such expenses necessarily incurred by him in the detection of crime, …and in the prosecution of criminal cases….”
Hiring outside counsel to handle appeals had been done by some of the past district attorneys, and payment of fees to such counsel would certainly seem to be authorized by the words “expenses incurred in criminal cases arising in the county.”
The sum of $5,000 had gone to the sheriff for use in maintaining a “dry squad” which investigated breaches of the Wright Act as well as vice. While this comes under the category of “the detection of crime,” the money was not “used by the district attorney” directly for that purpose, but was used by the sheriff. Was any such distinction meaningful? Whether it was or wasn’t did not come to be focused on.
Given that the statute vested discretion in the Board of Supervisors to add moneys to the fund in addition to the initial $5,000, it might well be thought that no DA would hesitate to tell the board why he contended such additional sums should be awarded. The board surely could not be expected to exercise its discretion in the absence of information.
Yet, that’s precisely what Keyes, a rather arrogant cuss, expected. He wanted the money handed-over just because he asked for it. As the Los Angeles Express’ report of Oct. 5 puts it: “Keyes had no intention of visiting the board, he said, as he had already requested the money and that he would make no further demand.”
Keyes seized upon the supervisors’ present refusal to shift more money into his special fund by publicly proclaiming that this obstinacy stymied him in his prosecution of McPherson. He announced on Oct. 7 that he didn’t have the means of bringing a witness from Gila, Ariz. to testify that McPherson, at the time she was supposedly the captive of kidnappers, had sent a telegram from there, with no evidence of her being under any domination at the time.
“Mr. Keyes knows that if he comes before this board and makes the proper application for expense money which he must have to carry on the work of his office, his request will be granted.”
McPherson made this statement:
“If the governing powers of the county want this witness, and cannot compose their differences long enough to arrange for his transportation, I will personally pay his way to Los Angeles and return, together, with all necessary expenses. I was never in a telegraph office in Gila, Arizona, nor did I ever send a telegram from there.”
Keyes also publicly declared that without necessary funding, the investigation of bootlegging and vice would have to be halted.
The board acquiesced. It had previously told Keyes that before it would give him any more revenues, he would have to appear before it to explain why he needed more money. Nonetheless, it granted Keyes $2,000 on Oct. 9 merely in response to a letter from George Telford, treasurer for the District Attorney’s Office. That letter said simply that funds would be used in connection with four unspecified investigations by the dry squad.
Certain ironies and anomalies marked the proceedings.
Here was the district attorney who was the subject of a criminal complaint, sworn to by McClellan. Yet, Keyes faulted McClellan for not first bouncing off him, or a deputy of his, whether the complaint had merit—as if there were any prospect that Keyes or a subordinate would have assured the supervisor: “You undeniably have a valid cause…pursue it!”
The Los Angeles Herald, in its Oct. 6 edition, quotes Keyes as stating:
“The regular procedure when a criminal complaint is sought is to lay the matter before the district attorney, which was not done in this case.
“When a person does place all the facts before the district attorney, the person seeking the complaint has protection.
“In this case, Supervisor McClellan is without protection, because the charges involved were not presented either to me personally or to anyone in my office.
“Such a situation must be classed as malicious prosecution and I am certain that I can take legal redress with a damage suit.”
Also appearing odd was the Board of Supervisors’ spotlighting of Keyes’ hiring of outside counsel…odd in light of its own retention, at county expense, of the services of the law firm of Morgan, Hill & Bledsoe. That firm—whose name partners were Vincent Morgan (who had, as a county lawyer, handled flood control matters), former County Counsel A.J. Hill (the first lawyer to fill that job), and former U.S. District Judge Benjamin Bledsoe (unsuccessful candidate the previous year for mayor of the City of L.A.)—garnered $12,000 a year in legal fees. Was the securing of the services of that firm, in light of the availability of services of the Office of County Counsel, justifiable? Given the lawyers’ expertise, quite likely so…though their employment by the supervisors did cast in doubt the good faith of their attack on the DA’s use of outside counsel.
The supervisors on Oct. 4 sent telegrams both to Gov. Friend Richardson and state Attorney General U.S. Webb asking that special counsel be appointed to prosecute Keyes. Under the Political Code, any such appointment would have been Webb’s to make. After looking into the matter, Webb concluded that a prosecution did not lie. On Nov. 1, he appeared before Ballard…it no doubt being a rare occurrence for the state attorney general to handle a matter in a municipal court. On his motion, the charges were dismissed.
With respect to the seven counts based on Keyes paying private lawyers to oppose appeals of convictions, the attorney general explained that the public had received the benefit of competent services, justifying the amounts expended. As to the count based on Keyes providing funds to the sheriff, Webb told the judge:
...I think as a pleading it is good, but the facts developed are these:
That the county auditor suggested, for the convenience of the handling of the fund, that $5,000 be transferred from the district attorney’s control, the money to be used for the investigation and prosecution of crime.
The suggestion of the auditor was approved by the supervisors. They even increased the amount, thereby indicating that they had approved that method of handling the fund.
The fund has been used by the sheriff in the investigation and prosecution of crime. The money was not misappropriated or misused, and the state had received the services contracted for.
This method of handling the money was irregular, but I am convinced it would not be shown in a trial that a public offense had been committed.
The district attorney was off the hook. The next time Keyes was charged with criminal conduct, however, he would wind up in San Quentin.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company