Thursday, January 14, 2010
Steve Cooley. County’s Second-Longest Serving D.A. Takes Pride in Record, Looks to Future
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
HE WAS NO “ACADEMIC SUPERSTAR,” he says, but he booked his criminal law course.
His father was an FBI agent, and he was a Los Angeles Police Department reserve officer. If he had not been hired by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office as a law clerk, his preferred alternative was a career on the fighting lines of law enforcement.
Perhaps becoming head of the largest local law enforcement agency in the nation—with more than 1,000 prosecutors, 300 investigators, and 600 support staff—was Steve Cooley’s destiny.
He is the first district attorney honored by the MetNews as Person of the Year, and until recently, he did not seem in any hurry to give the office up.
In November 2000, on the night he trounced incumbent Gil Garcetti to win his current office, he promised that he would only serve two terms. Having won his third term in June 2008 in a landslide, he has not ruled out running to become the first-ever four-term Los Angeles D.A. in 2012, which would bring his total tenure as a prosecutor to more than 40 years.
At the time the MetNews announced his selection as Person of the Year, Cooley was disclaiming any interest in running for another office. But that changed Monday, when he declared himself “100 percent” committed to running for the Republican nomination for state attorney general.
In an interview that took place before he took that step, Cooley expressed no reluctance to continue tackling what he describes as a 10- to 12-hour a day, six- or seven-day-a-week job.
His close friend and former boss, ex-District Attorney Robert Philibosian, says Cooley would bring substantial fundraising ability and bipartisan appeal to the race. Cooley, he says, has avoided partisan political battles and earned “equally high marks from defense attorneys…victims’ rights groups, and police agencies.”
He also says Cooley has been “absolutely a success” in his present office.
“He’s everything a district attorney should be,” Philibosian declares. “A natural leader, ethical, honest, candid, innovative, hardworking and inspirational.”
The one thing that has held him back from looking to run statewide, Philibosian says, is that “he loves being the district attorney.”
Cooley, he posits, “is totally and unselfishly dedicated to good government and public service, unlike some elected officeholders who are more interested in self-advancement.”
‘Personal and Political Courage’
Public Defender Michael Judge, one of Cooley’s co-honorees as Person of the Year, praises Cooley’s “personal and political courage” in changing his office’s Three Strikes policy to limit the number of cases in which life sentences would be sought for non-violent crimes. Cooley, he says, “has a good sense of proportionality.”
He adds that while they are institutional rivals who have understandably clashed over policy matters, they can “disagree without being disagreeable” and that there has never been any personal animus. He says he appreciates Cooley’s bluntness and honesty.
“You don’t get vague statements or evasions,” he says. He adds “there is more personal warmth” to the professional relationship with the District Attorney’s Office under Cooley than under his predecessor,” Gil Garcetti.
One gets a strong sense that as he completes his ninth year in office, Steve Cooley is thinking about his legacy. He has no doubt, he explains, that there are good people, both within and outside—but mostly within—the office who could do the job, and do it well.
But there are also “schlubs…and I’m not going to name names”…who want his job, he says, and he is determined not to let any of them have it.
Were he to leave the public sphere, Cooley adds, it would probably be “for something in the private sector not involving billable hours,” perhaps as a corporate ethics watchdog.
He talks about corporations in a language that might not be music to the ears of his fellow Republicans.
To hear Cooley tell it, the country is in an “economic mess,” in part because some companies “exploited an unregulated market” and “lied and misrepresented.” It was, he says, “a nonpartisan screw-up” in which “greed was the common denominator.”
He feels comfortable, he says, that he has largely fulfilled the “Blueprint for Justice” that was the manifesto of his first campaign. He points to the creation of the office’s Justice System Integrity Division and Public Integrity Division, the beefing up of its work in forensic science, and the instituting of a change in the way the Three Strikes Law is implemented—a matter of no little controversy.
‘Three Strikes’ Debated
During the campaign against Garcetti, which featured some 15 debates around the county, Cooley laid out a plan that he implemented as soon as he took office.
The policy applies when a defendant with two “strikes” is charged with a new crime that isn’t a serious or violent felony or a large-quantity drug offense. In such cases, the prosecution will move to treat it as a second, rather than a third, strike unless it involves a firearm or deadly weapon, “injury to a victim,” or threats or violence, or unless other factors are determined by a district attorney bureau chief to warrant prosecution as a third strike.
He went ahead in the face of criticism that remained fierce, even after he was elected with nearly two-thirds of the vote. The legislative author of the Three-Strikes Law, Bill Jones, a Republican who had gone on to become California secretary of state, accused Cooley in an open letter of seeking to use the prosecutor’s power to move to dismiss strikes “as a tool to ignore the will of the state’s voters.”
Cooley responded to Jones in a public statement:
“My policy, clearly stated on my website for the past year, in numerous debates with my opponent and the subject of positive editorials in every daily paper in the county is clear: It is designed to assure proportionate justice and an evenhanded application of the law.”
While the policy applied only to Los Angeles County, Cooley’s subsequent effort to have state law changed in accordance with his approach led to blowback from the California District Attorneys Association, which in turn led Cooley to withdraw from the group in 2006.
Deputy District Attorney Steve Ipsen, who heads the local Association of Deputy District Attorneys, challenged his boss in the 2008 election, citing Cooley’s fight with the CDAA as an example of his supposed coziness with the defense bar.
But Cooley expresses no regrets about the break. In fact, he sounds virtually gleeful when he talks about it.
“All I wanted was a slight, moderate change” in the law, in order to avoid the “injustice” of life sentences in cases that don’t warrant them, he explains. His response to the statewide prosecutors group, was “vaya con Dios,” he says, and it was “the best thing I ever did.”
He even chuckles as he explains how his chief deputy, John Spillane, called the CDAA to tell them “the check’s not in the mail.”
The office is no longer “bound by any organization’s legislative positions” or “subordinated to a trade organization,” doesn’t have to pay dues, and doesn’t have to spend its own money to send its personnel to distant counties to train or be trained by other jurisdictions’ prosecutors, he explains. Instead, the training is done locally and the expense is minimal.
His real legacy, he says, will not be found in policy manuals or organizational charts, but in the people who will carry on the office’s work.
He has hired about 370 deputies since taking office, he notes, estimating that by the end of 2010, 98 percent of the head deputies and 50 to 60 percent of all deputies “in this great office” will have been hired by him.
He estimates that he has actually met 300 to 400 of the deputies, mostly at retirement dinners, promotion parties and other social events, or at training sessions. He generally does not meet with them casually during the day, he explains, because “they’re at work.”
Los Angeles Native
Stephen Lawrence Cooley, the second of five children, was born at what is now St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 1, 1947, and grew up in the Silver Lake area. He attended Ribet Academy and Pater Noster High School, a Catholic institution that was run by the Brothers of St. Patrick until it closed in 1991.
He gained respect for the work of law enforcement, he explains, from his father, a certified public accountant and FBI agent who left the bureau in the 1950s.
The bureau’s philosophy at the time, Cooley explains, was to keep agents’ social, familiar, and political ties out of their work by relocating them to areas where they had no existing relationships. In his father’s case, he says, that meant having to move to Albany, N.Y., before leaving the job and returning to Los Angeles.
After high school, the future district attorney attended California State University, Los Angeles, where he served two terms as student body president and graduated in 1970. Wanting to become a prosecutor, with a “Plan B” to join either the FBI or the Los Angeles Police Department, he entered USC Law School, while attending the LAPD Reserve Academy at night.
He ultimately went with “Plan A,” joining the District Attorney’s Office as a law clerk in 1973 and as an entry-level deputy the following January.
He spent his first few weeks making the “county run,” a since-discontinued method of staffing courts in which young prosecutors moved from courthouse to courthouse under the watchful eyes of supervisors. He then went on to misdemeanors and preliminary hearings in El Monte before being transferred to the Central Juvenile unit that handled all juvenile cases in which the offenders were in detention, including homicides, armed robberies and sexual assaults.
It was in that assignment, more than 30 years ago, that he helped break in a new Superior Court judge named Terry Hatter Jr., who, like Cooley, was headed for bigger things.
Hatter, who went on to become chief judge, and is now a senior judge, of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, says he appreciated Cooley then and remains an admirer.
“He was my first courtroom deputy…and helped me get through the whole process,” Hatter comments. “He was terrific…a good, fair prosecutor.”
While he had “no idea” that Cooley might be district attorney someday, “it’s not a surprise that he would rise to a high level,” Hatter says, because his leadership qualities were obvious.
Cooley has been successful, Hatter postulates, because “for one thing…he is moderate in his persona.” He was impressed, he said, with Cooley’s willingness to take on the Three Strikes issue.
Taking controversial positions on principle is “one of the hallmarks of a real leader,” Hatter says, adding that Cooley “doesn’t just follow polls…a leader doesn’t mind standing up.”
Cooley “exudes a certain sense of fairness” and is a model for young lawyers considering careers in prosecution, Hatter—a former law professor, defense lawyer and anti-poverty activist—says. “I’ve always encouraged law students to consider the prosecution side….We need fair prosecutors.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Vincent Okamoto, who studied with Cooley during law school and was a prosecutor in juvenile court at the same time as Cooley, adds the future district attorney was “a craftsman as a trial attorney” and was respected for his “impeccable” demeanor and ethical sense.
After Central Juvenile, Cooley moved on to Central Trials downtown and then to Pasadena, where he supervised three lawyers and three secretaries in the juvenile section.
But his career really took off, he acknowledges, after good friend Philibosian—a former MetNews Person of the Year—became district attorney in 1982, by appointment to a vacancy.
The two form a mutual admiration society, with Philibosian crediting Cooley with a signature accomplishment of his administration, the centralization of narcotics prosecutions under the auspices of the Major Narcotics Division. Cooley, on the other hand, declines the credit, saying he might have made a comment in passing, but that it was Philibosian who made the change happen.
But Philibosian’s tenure as district attorney was limited to less than two years because he lost his election bid for a full term to Los Angeles City Attorney Ira Reiner. Before he left, however, Philibosian promoted Cooley to head deputy for the Antelope Valley.
One would not think that an ideal assignment, given that Cooley lived 62 miles away in Toluca Lake.
Young Head Deputy
But it actually worked out quite well, Cooley maintains. At 37, he was one of the youngest head deputies the office ever had and held the Antelope Valley post for eight years.
The commute was an hour each way, no longer than that of many deputies who live in various parts of the county and have to fight traffic to get downtown, he says. “And I enjoyed it because I got to build a branch,” he adds.
The cases were exciting, and because the location was deemed remote, specialized units of the office “didn’t come out to cherry-pick your cases.”
Cooley caught another break after former Chief Deputy Gil Garcetti defeated Reiner in 1992. Garcetti gave Cooley a choice of assignments—“which I appreciated,” he notes—and he took that of head deputy in San Fernando, which he says had “the worst backlog in the county,” not to mention the fact that the courthouse had been damaged by an earthquake.
The situation was “miserable,” he comments, saying “everyone”—prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges—were at fault.
A new supervising judge, Judith Ashmann-Gerst, now a justice of this district’s Court of Appeal, was sent in with instructions to “clean this up,” Cooley says, adding that he did his part by reducing the backlog to the smallest in the county within less than a year. “We built in accountability and redundancy”—assigning everyone a specific job, with specific backup responsibilities—“along with esprit de corps.”
And all of this was accomplished, he adds proudly, during “very bad budget times” in which the office lost seven or eight of its 34 attorney positions.
Cooley gives credit to the “great lawyers” who staffed the office. “I held on to the good ones, recruited some more good ones, and got rid of some people who weren’t the producers,” he said.
He jokingly refers to a “San Fernando Mafia” of topnotch lawyers, some of whom, such as Jacquelyn Lacey and Jan Maurizi, he has placed in high-level positions as district attorney.
In 1996, though, he made one of those fork-in-the-road decisions that have mapped his way to where he is now. He decided to support John Lynch, an upstart head deputy making a long-shot bid to unseat Garcetti.
“I was disappointed in Gil,” he explains. “I thought the office hadn’t blossomed as we all had hoped.
He had loyally implemented Garcetti’s tough stance on Three-Strikes, but he wasn’t happy with the results. “There was growing disenchantment,” he says.
He didn’t blame Garcetti for the fact that the office lost one of its highest-profile prosecutions ever, the O.J. Simpson double-murder case.
“That stuff happens,” Cooley acknowledges. “It was not necessarily within his control.”
Lynch lost by the narrowest of margins that November, despite being outspent 5-1. Cooley lost the San Fernando Valley post, and was exiled to what was seen as being as humbling a position as a head deputy could get, the Welfare Fraud Division.
It was the prosecutorial equivalent of Siberia, or so some thought. It turned out to be “an awful political miscalculation” on Garcetti’s part, Philibosian says.
“Garcetti tried to squelch him,” Philibosian comments. “He moved him from the San Fernando Valley, where he was extremely popular”—300 people came to his going away party, the former district attorney recalls—“and sent him downtown to welfare fraud…so that Garcetti could watch him.”
“It was a tactical error,” Philibosian says. Instead of being undermined, “what Steve Cooley did was to bring all of his skills as a trial lawyer” to what had been considered a “backwater.” The division actively investigated cases, found evidence of highly organized fraud rings, discovered welfare recipients living in expensive homes, obtained search warrants, and often found that their targets had furs, jewelry, and first- class airline tickets.
That, in turn, made Cooley a national figure, as the network television program “20/20” did an entire segment on welfare fraud, “totally ignoring Gil Garcetti” and demonstrating Cooley’s “natural investigative and prosecutorial abilities,” Philibosian comments.
Cooley recalls that after the 1996 election, Lynch told him “you should have run,” and he began thinking Lynch might be right. After all, he had “raised a good chunk” of Lynch’s money and was tied into a lot of law enforcement and other groups that could have been helpful in the race.
Cooley says he had reason to be confident of his chances in 2000. The closeness of the 1996 runoff with Lynch was all Cooley says he needed to be convinced Garcetti was “vulnerable, and not liked.”
But he did hire a campaign pollster who confirmed what he already believed, that the number of voters who had a negative opinion of the district attorney was high.
Not everyone expressed such a high opinion of Cooley’s chances. A year before the primary, political consultant Joe Cerrell, a Garcetti friend, called running the political neophyte against Garcetti “the closest thing to not having an opponent.”
But Cooley had his issues. He attacked Garcetti on Three Strikes and on corruption in the LAPD Rampart Division CRASH unit, accusing the incumbent of allowing the scandal to fester by failing to recognize police officers who framed suspects or lied on the witness stand.
He repeatedly invoked the case of Javier Ovando, paralyzed in 1996 when rogue officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden shot him without justification, planted a gun on him and then presented a false story to cover up the actual facts.
Ovando was convicted by a jury of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 23 years in prison, but the conviction was overturned—one of more than 100 tossed out in the aftermath of the scandal—when Perez agreed to disclose wrongdoing within the department by other officers after he was arrested for removing drugs from a police evidence room.
Cooley put together an array of support, including nearly every law enforcement group that endorsed and all of the newspaper editorial boards, along with many prosecutors and defense attorneys and all of Garcetti’s living predecessors—Reiner, Philibosian, and John Van de Kamp.
Garcetti, on the other hand, had far more money and nearly all of the county’s elected officials in his corner, including four of the five county supervisors—the lone exception being Mike Antonovich, who went to school with Cooley at CSULA and worked with him when Cooley ran the Antelope Valley office, and who describes his old classmate as a “man of extraordinary vision and dedication” and “one of the most successful D.A.s in our county’s history.”
Spending nearly his entire campaign treasury in the primary just trying to keep up, Cooley shocked pundits by narrowly finishing ahead of the incumbent. After that, he recalls, “[Garcetti’s] fundraising almost evaporated and mine took off,” besides which he began receiving a lot more attention from what he calls “the free media,” executing a strategy devised by journalist-turned-consultant Joe Scott, who became his communications director after the election.
Garcetti’s only option, Cooley comments, was to copy Reiner’s strategy from 1984 and portray the officially nonpartisan race as a classic Democrat versus Republican contest in the Democratic county. That, and pound on the candidates’ differences on Three Strikes, painting Cooley anomalously as a “soft-on-crime Republican.”
The strategy didn’t work, obviously. Cooley’s pollster told him in July that while Garcetti had to stay on the attack, there was no way he could overcome his high negatives, and that barring some radical, unpredictable turn of events, Cooley was assured of victory, he recalls.
He won the general election with an overwhelming 64 percent of the vote. When the results came in, he quipped as he addressed supporters in a crowded hotel ballroom that he would consult with people “on my left and on my right, ideologically as well as otherwise.”
He has gone on to two more landslide wins, taking 59 percent against five opponents in 2004 and 65 percent against Ipsen and Albert Robles in 2008. He is the first district attorney since Buron Fitts, who served from 1928-40, to win a third term.
In that, he has succeeded where Reiner and Garcetti failed, he surmises, because the office has had “a lot of wins” and has avoided high-profile defeats on the scale of the MacMartin preschool child molestation cases under Reiner or the O.J. Simpson case under Garcetti.
The highest-profile loss of his tenure was probably the 2005 acquittal of actor Robert Blake on a charge of murdering his wife. And while Cooley says we have a “great criminal justice system” in the county, he told a reporter that the jurors in that particular case were “incredibly stupid” to acquit a “miserable human being” who was “guilty as sin.”
But while he will be the point man for issues he feels strongly about, he says, he eschews being a “press conference prosecutor,” preferring to “let the office be the focus.” He has tried instead to give the people what they expect, he says—an office that prosecutes cases fairly and doesn’t grandstand or demagogue.
He avoids the usual labels of liberal or conservative, saying that he is “results-oriented” and “not an ideologue.”
Accused of Unfairness
There are discordant notes, of course, including an unfair labor practice charge by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys that is now pending before the county Employee Relations Commission. It is a matter Cooley declines to discuss, so right now all of the comment is coming from the union side.
Marc Debbaudt, the union’s vice president, is outspoken in his criticism, accusing Cooley of trying to break the union.
The union understands that times are lean, Debbaudt explains, and is not raising monetary issues. The problem, he says, is that Cooley has been willing to negotiate transfer and assignment policies for investigators but not for deputy district attorneys.
He and Ipsen, he claims, have been retaliated against with negative performance evaluations that were unprecedented in their 20-year-plus careers. And he has been transferred to a low-level assignment normally performed by a grade III deputy at one-third the pay in order to send a message to the union, he reports.
Conflicts between the ADDA and the district attorney are nothing new. But things are much worse now than in the past, Debbaudt—who served under Reiner and Garcetti and worked for the Public Defender’s Office before that—says.
Cooley, he declares, “has managed to secure himself the position of the highest paid district attorney in the state while we do all the work and...he mingles with defense attorneys.”
Medical Marijuana Fight
The district attorney has also attracted critics as a result of wading into the contentious issue of medical marijuana dispensaries.
He and Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich—whom he strongly backed in last spring’s election, saying the result “restored my faith in democracy”—have been vilified by medical-marijuana advocates and some newspaper editorialists for their hard-line stance. But he insists that he is enforcing, not attacking, the initiative statute that allows the use of doctor-recommended marijuana to alleviate illness, in contrast to the “dithering” of the Los Angeles City Council as it considers an ordinance that would allow some number of dispensaries to operate.
“If [dispensaries] are selling marijuana over the counter, for profit, we can and we will” shut them down, he says. “If they want to abide by the narrow proscriptions that are in [Proposition] 215, that will be respected and honored and untouched by this office or by law enforcement.”
But the network of dispensaries that has grown up in the county, he declares, is “corrupt from beginning to end.” He cites a law enforcement study showing that 70 percent of the purchasers are under the age of 40, and urges cities to avoid “messing up” like Los Angeles has by using their land use regulations to keep dispensaries out completely, an approach endorsed by the Court of Appeal in a recent case, City of Claremont v. Kruse (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 1153.
It isn’t all work for Cooley. He has been married to Jana Cooley, a former court reporter whose current interest is training show dogs, since 1975.
Their getaway home is in Lake Arrowhead, where they go snow skiing, water skiing, and boating, and they recently took an 11-day driving trip to attend a dog show in Kansas and visit a farm his wife inherited in Nebraska.
His golf game, he says, is more a means of socializing than exercising.
The Cooleys have two children. Michael Cooley is a producer and editor for the extreme sports cable network Fuel TV—and is married to a deputy district attorney—and Shannon Cooley is a lawyer who started out in civil practice but is now a deputy to her proud father.
She says she joined the office not because of who her father is, but because she wasn’t passionate about civil work and “wanted to find a job I really enjoyed.” What she has discovered, she says, is what motivated her father all of these years, a “truly inspiring” love for the institution and its work.
“I love coming to work every day,” she says, adding that while she intends to make it a career, it is far too early for her to think about being the first-ever second-generation district attorney of Los Angeles County.
There is one point of contention between father and daughter, though—they went to rival schools. Steve Cooley remains a passionate USC Trojan, attending most home games and at least one road game each year, while his daughter was a UC Berkeley undergraduate—her law degree is from Loyola—and roots for the Golden Bears.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company