Monday, August 23, 2010
Allegations Rampant That Garcetti Was Vindictive, but Some Dispute It
By ROGER M. GRACE
131st in a Series
GIL GARCETTI: Was he vindictive?
Ask that question of retired Deputy District Attorney Lea Purwin D’Agostino and you’ll get the response, “Is the pope Catholic?”
Ask it of veteran Deputy DA Chris Frisco and you’ll hear: “Is the pope German?”
Garcetti was accused, while district attorney, of vindictiveness toward deputies who took issue with his approaches or politically opposed him. The example most often pointed to is a DDA who feverishly backed John Lynch in his ill-starred 1996 bid to unseat Garcetti, one Stephen L. Cooley.
The Dec. 7, 1996, issue of the Daily Breeze quotes James Bozajian, who headed the county’s Association of Deputy District Attorneys (when it was a non-union) as saying that Garcetti “has a reputation among many deputies for being someone [who is] vindictive.”
On the other hand, there are persons who were deputies under Garcetti who will dispute the notion that he was spiteful. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lauren Weis Birnstein is among them. She says:
“I do not believe Gil was ever vindictive in his appointments or transfers. My experience was that he did the best job he could to put the most qualified and experienced people in positions where their talents were appropriate and of most benefit to the office.”
Birnstein (who then went by “Weis”) drew top assignments from Garcetti: head deputy of sex crimes for four years, of the Torrance Branch for one year, and of the Santa Monica/Airport Branch for another two years.
“I hardly knew Gil when he first appointed me,” she notes, adding:
“There will always be complaints due to the political nature of the appointment process and I have heard and continue to hear many such complaints no matter who is the head of the office.”
Longtime DDA Marc Chomel, a supervisor, says he did not discern vindictiveness on the part of Garcetti, nor predecessor Ira Reiner, nor the current DA, Steve Cooley, observing:
“The charge of vindictive transfers was not new under Garcetti and they didn’t end after him. At least some of these charges clearly stem from employees whose malfeasance or work ethic earned less favorable assignments, regardless of the administration.”
Indeed, under Cooley’s administration, one prescription for the laggardly seems to be: get active in the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (which now is a union) and, if you’re called on the carpet, bellow that you’re a victim of union-busting activity.
Were those who claimed oppression by Garcetti the office goof offs?
Below and in the next two columns, I’ll provide a run-down on publicized instances of alleged retaliation by Garcetti.
●Steve Cooley: The man who defeated Garcetti at the polls in 2000 was the most vocal backer of Garcetti’s rival in the 1996 general election, the uninspiring John Lynch. Chances are that if Cooley had been the challenger in 1996, Garcetti would have fallen then.
In backing the DA’s foe, Cooley knew he was taking a chance. The Nov. 11 edition of the Daily Breeze—published at a time when the results of the Nov. 5 general election in the DA’s race were still too close to call—contains an article which says:
“Prosecutor Stephen L. Cooley hosted a pre-election night party at his home, entertaining volunteers who joined him in supporting John Lynch for Los Angeles district attorney.
“Cooley, head of the district attorney’s San Fernando branch, had contributed to Lynch’s campaign with money and time. And with the aroma of homemade chili in the air, he talked openly with guests about the need to replace his boss, Gil Garcetti .
“In so doing, Cooley likely altered his own future.
“ ‘It is common after any election that changes are made,’ said Cooley, 49, an outspoken critic of Garcetti. ‘And if I were a betting man, I would bet that meant me—either way.’ ”
A Nov. 17 op-ed piece in the Times by criminal defense attorney Charles Lindner observes:
“Cooley... has become a poster boy for what can happen if one plays office politics. The buzz around his office centers on what will become of the veteran prosecutor.
“Most are sure that if Lynch wins Cooley will join the leadership downtown. Those same people are just as sure that Cooley could end up in a less-than desirable position if Garcetti wins and focuses on those in his office who were his harshest critics.”
Sure enough, with Garcetti the victor, Cooley was banished from the Valley—where he would have retained visibility (and popularity) and could have started building a political base for a 2000 campaign—and was relegated to the Welfare Fraud Unit in the downtown Criminal Courts Building.
A Dec. 20, 1996, article in the Daily News quotes Cooley as terming his transfer “obviously retaliatory” and remarking:
“So much for Gil’s promises of no retaliation. Now it is payback time for those who stood up for his opponent.”
Former Los Angeles District Attorney Robert H. Philibosian refers to Welfare Frauds as a unit that was “notorious backwater.” Also, he says, assigning Cooley to CCB meant putting him in a place “where Garcetti could keep an eye on him.”
So, seemingly, Cooley was tucked away in a dreary assignment where he would have no connection with noteworthy cases, and no press coverage. But it did not turn out that way.
Cooley instituted an aggressive crackdown on welfare fraud, and attracted major media attention. Garcetti could hardly thwart this boon to a possible election rival by instructing his deputy to curb his efforts.
Philibosian recounts that Cooley obtained warrants to search abodes of suspected welfare cheats, and that some suspects were found to possess “expensive homes, expensive cars, piles of cash, jewelry, travel tickets.”
Here’s the sort of coverage Cooley got:
—The July 26, 1997, issue of the Daily News contains a report on arrests of five couples on charges of bilking the county through spurious welfare claims. The article mentions:
“And for the first time, the District Attorney’s Office will use a 1997 law to freeze some of the defendants’ assets to help cover court-ordered fines and restitution if they are convicted, said prosecutor Stephen L. Cooley, who heads the Welfare Fraud Division.”
—A May 13, 1998, Times story tells of felony convictions of a couple for welfare fraud that netted them more than $100,000, and of the DA’s Office’s use of the new law to confiscate $50,000 in currency found in their possession. The article says:
“ ‘This is the first time this statutory scheme has been used in a welfare fraud case in California,’ said Stephen L. Cooley, head of the district attorney’s welfare fraud unit. ‘We hope to use it often in the future as we continue to pursue major welfare fraud cases....It’s become another arrow in our quiver to attack this prevalent problem.’ ”
—A March 8, 1999, article in the Daily News reports that a couple were being prosecuted for siphoning more than $58,000 from the public’s coffers through welfare scams. The article casts the spotlight on Cooley. It quotes him as saying:
“All the truly greedy need do to steal from the truly needy—and you, the taxpayers—is to lie....
“I can assure you that lying and cheating to defraud public benefit programs is occurring on a grand scale, particularly here in Los Angeles County.”
The piece reveals that the grand jury “plans to hand down a series of ‘significant reform recommendations’ next month to overhaul the way the Department of Public and Social Service distributes government benefits.”
—A Daily News article on Aug. 3, 1999, reports on an internal county memo questioning the grand jury finding that welfare fraud costs the county as much as $500 million a year. The article conveys that Cooley “said the $500 million figure is probably in the ballpark and could even be low.”
—An Oct. 7, 1999, Times report on Cooley’s declaration of candidacy includes this:
“Earlier this year, Cooley was profiled on ABC News’ ‘20/20’ about welfare fraud, partly because of a campaign he initiated to go after welfare cheats.”
Philibosian notes that the “20/20” crew taped an interview with Garcetti, but it “never made it on the air.” It was Cooley who drew national attention. He wasn’t in exile, out of sight of the public; he was on front stage, center.
●Peter Bozanich: He, too was a deputy DA who supported Lynch, and he, too, was transferred to a less desirable assignment after the election. Bozanich was shifted from the post of head deputy in Compton to the top spot at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall.
A Times article of Dec. 20, 1996, quotes him as saying:
“It’d be fair to say that I win my bets that [Garcetti] would bury Cooley and me.”
This was his second displacement in a year. The shift to Compton was, itself, the result of an ejectment from a preferable position.
As Lindner tells it in the Nov. 17, 1996 article mentioned above:
“At the beginning of the Garcetti administration, Peter was its ‘golden boy.’ He was assistant chief of central operations, being groomed to move up.”
But, in the early days of the O.J. Simpson prosecution, Bozanich spotted what he viewed as missteps. Lindner writes:
“When he tried to express his concerns to Garcetti, he was shunned, as were numerous other highly placed trial deputies in the office. Encountering obstacles at every turn, he withdrew from Garcetti’s inner circle, was demoted and exiled to the Compton branch.”
Joseph Bosco, in his 1996 book, “A Problem of Evidence,” terms the Compton office “a very unpleasant but busy place to be,” and says Bozanich was sent there because he “began to question the ethics and the strategy” of the DA’s Office in the Simpson case.
Cooley, once he became DA, named three assistant DAs, including Bozanich, assigned to head special operations.
(I had interplay with Bozanich once, on May 2, 2002. He had made some rather stupid calls prior to the onset of the search of a particular newspaper office—ours. It was possible to sort matters out with him after I insisted that a wisecracking DDA who was also on the line shut up.)
Bozanich is now living in Seal Beach and is on inactive bar status.
●David Conn: He was another DDA who had been in favor with Garcetti, and fell out of it. Reporter Alan Abrahamson’s Oct. 19, 1996, Times article says:
“[I]re in the [DA’s] office runs deep over Garcetti’s treatment of Deputy Dist. Atty. David Conn, who won the Menendez brothers’ retrial with a verdict that came in just a few days before the March 26 primary election, muting criticism that the district attorney’s office couldn’t win the big cases. The brothers’ first trial [on charges of murdering their parents] had ended two years before with hung juries.
“Conn then happened to mention to a reporter that he might one day be interested in being D.A.
“A short time later, Conn was denied promotion to a coveted position as a head deputy. He was told he lacked management experience.
“ ‘Here’s a guy who won a big case,’ said a former prosecutor who asked to remain unnamed. ‘In some ways, he saved Gil’s bacon. Why not promote the guy?’
“ ‘That’s a management position,’ Garcetti said. ‘End of story.’ ”
Bosco, in his book, asserts that Garcetti made an effort to keep potential challengers out of the limelight, alleging that Marcia Clark was assigned to the Simpson case, in part, for this reason:
“She was unelectable. As a twice-divorced female with a quirky life history, she could never run for Garcetti’s job.”
Then came a transfer of Conn to Norwalk. The Times commented on that in an editorial, saying on Feb. 4, 1997:
“Gil Garcetti needs to be reminded that he is running a tax-supported public office, not a personal fiefdom.
“Garcetti’s reassignment of David Conn, a skilled and accomplished prosecutor, is sadly more of the same seemingly vengeful behavior Garcetti displayed during his first term. Conn was transferred effective Monday from the elite major crimes division downtown to the district attorney’s Norwalk office, where he will be a trial deputy handling routine cases.”
Attributing the action to Conn’s statement that he might like to be DA someday, the editorial goes on to say:
“During his first term, Garcetti summarily dispatched several top prosecutors after they won key cases and stepped briefly into the limelight. With such transfers, Garcetti merely fuels the speculation that he cannot abide the success of his own deputies. No wonder morale in the D.A.’s office continues to be so low.
“Of all people, Garcetti should know better. In 1988, then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner demoted Garcetti, his second-in-command, without explanation, reassigning him to Torrance.”
Conn had been granted 470 hours of overtime pay in connection with his work in the Menendez case in 1994 and 1995, but did not receive it. Ann O’Neill’s “Court Files” column in the Times on April 18, 1999, reports:
“…Conn is suing Garcetti, who apparently wants to be District Attorney for Life, and Los Angeles County for 470˝ hours of overtime he’s owed for the Menendez case. Conn’s suit, filed by attorney Rees Lloyd, contends that more than a year after he won his beef before the county’s Civil Service Commission, Conn has yet to see a dime of overtime.
“Because the unpaid overtime, accrued during 1994 and 1995, was reflected in his paycheck stubs, Conn is accusing Garcetti of fraud. Conn says he was led to believe the money would someday be paid. According to court papers, the fraud occurred when Conn was told he could carry over his overtime from one year to the next, when that wasn’t the case.
“Conn also alleges that Garcetti discriminated against him and created working conditions ‘so onerous’ he was forced to leave the office after nearly 20 years.”
The case was quickly settled.
Conn, who resigned from the DA’s Office in 1997 and went into private practice, died in 2006.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company