Thursday, January 14, 2010
Carmen ‘Nuch’ Trutanich. First-Term Los Angeles City Attorney Wins Cases, Lifts Office Morale
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
SOME SUGGEST IT’S PREMATURE TO HONOR Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich after just six months in office.
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Trutanich’s chief of staff, former U.S. attorney William Carter, both joke that it’s “like Obama getting the [Nobel] Peace Prize” when asked about Trutanich’s receipt of the MetNews “Person of the Year” Award.
Indeed, Trutanich himself remarked at an Oct. 21 meeting of the Armenian Bar Assn. that when the announcement was made of the recipients of the 2009 awards—Cooley, Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael Judge, and him—“I said, ‘What the hell am I doing there? I haven’t done anything yet.’” He commented that he viewed himself as the “Barack Obama of Los Angeles County,” so far as being prematurely regaled.
Yet, his accomplishments so far have appeared to many as substantial.
Last May, Trutanich was not only elected city attorney, but came from near-obscurity outside the legal community to best then-Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, the presumed frontrunner, in a runoff election with just over 55 percent of the vote.
Since Trutanich took office July 1, he has been winning cases—taking to trial civil cases that formerly would have been settled, and going after costs.
Some deputy city attorneys say morale has burgeoned and a new sense of esprit de corps blossomed.
So while Trutanich remains, more or less, near the beginning of his first term of elected office and history has yet to judge his tenure, he is honored not only for what he may yet do, but for what he has achieved so far.
Trutanich, 58, says his nickname means “Junior,” and is derived from his family’s Croatian-Italian heritage.
In a Sept. 15 talk before the Italian American Lawyers Assn., he elaborated. He lived in an Italian neighborhood in San Pedro, he recounted, and Carmen was a common name. Two family members sported it, as well as a neighbor, he said, telling the group:
“Every time someone called for ‘Carmen,’ four people would turn around. So, since I was the youngest one, I had the diminutive suffix attached to my name, which then became ‘Carmenuch,’ so ‘Nuch’ basically means ‘Junior.’ ”
“Nuch” Trutanich worked alongside his father in the StarKist Tuna cannery during his youth, and then returned to the company’s procurement department while attending South Bay University College of Law at night after earning undergraduate and business degrees from USC.
He opened a small practice in his hometown after admission to the State Bar in 1979, but soon joined the District Attorney’s Office “to learn my craft” and become a better litigator.
“I’m never comfortable until I’m the master of what I do,” he says. “The best way of learning is going and doing, and I needed to learn to think on my feet.”
The time in the Hardcore Gang Division led to what Trutanich says is one of his most meaningful cases: his representation of a former District Attorney’s Office investigator who saved Trutanich’s life in a 1985 gunfight.
Then a deputy district attorney, Trutanich was gathering evidence at a South Los Angeles murder scene when a carload of gang members opened fire. Investigator James H. Bell pulled Trutanich to safety behind a low brick wall and held him down while returning fire, and both escaped unharmed.
Years later, Trutanich came to Bell’s aid.
Bell had sued Santa Monica police and state officials in 1992 over injuries he suffered in 1991 when two police officers, mistaking him for a fraud suspect, grabbed him and yanked his arms behind his back. A jury in 1994 found against Bell, but the judge granted a new trial based on jury misconduct. Trutanich, by then back in private practice, stepped into the case. He represented Bell in the Court of Appeal, secured an affirmance from this district’s Div. Four, and retried the case for a $1.8 million win on Oct. 18, 2000.
Trutanich moved to the Environmental Crimes Division after Ira Reiner became Los Angeles County district attorney in 1984, successfully trying the state’s first felony environmental crime.
Former Senior Assistant City Attorney Barry Groveman, now head of Musick Peeler & Garrett’s environmental unit, recruited Trutanich to the District Attorney’s Office’s Environmental Crimes Division while a deputy district attorney. It was a “new and innovative and very complex” division, he says, noting that he was searching for somebody “tough, highly ethical, aggressive and creative.”
Trutanich “made everybody look good,” Groveman recalls. “I always gave him the hardest cases. He was one of the best deputies and he inspired a lot of people.”
“Before then, real lawyers didn’t go [into environmental crimes prosecution]….I took heat for going. People would call up and ask, ‘Can you come over with a mop?’ ”
But the division became the most highly publicized unit, Trutanich says.
“We added teeth, and brought in hardcore gang investigation training and applied it,” he says. “Surveillance. Undercover work in a Motel 6 parking lot. Searches and seizures. It never had been done before.”
Trutanich re-entered private practice in 1988, establishing the boutique environmental law firm of Jaffe, Trutanich, Scatena & Blum, and 10 years later he partnered with suitemate C. D. “Chuck” Michel to form Trutanich • Michel LLP in Long Beach.
He served a four-and-a-half month stint as a senior deputy Los Angeles city attorney in 2005, but returned to private practice, he says, after “it became painfully obvious I couldn’t do what I wanted to do without being the man on top.”
Robert H. Philibosian—now of counsel to Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton—was Los Angeles County district attorney when Trutanich joined the Hardcore Gang Division. He says Trutanich was “a courageous and outstanding prosecutor” in that assignment, and “a real pioneer” at the Environmental Crimes Division, even though Philibosian had left office by that point.
Noting that Trutanich was “self-taught,” the former district attorney comments:
“It was a big jump from prosecuting criminals who murdered, or robbed, or raped to these sophisticated cases.”
Philibosian says he supported Trutanich in the 2009 election to succeed then-City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo because “[Trutanich] was the best candidate I had seen in a long, long time, no comparison.”
He recalls that the campaign was “extremely tough” because Trutanich was “a non-entity with no political base and no financial support versus a City Council member with a well-developed political base and well-developed financial support.”
Early in the race, Weiss had been favored by many as the likely successor to Delgadillo, who was barred by term limits from running again. He amassed a $1.8 million war chest before the March primary election in which he finished first out of a field of five, but less than one month later, Trutanich reported that his campaign funds exceeded those in the coffers of his runoff opponent.
As the race drew to a close, reports indicated Weiss managed to surpass Trutanich in fundraising, but failed to regain the financial advantage he had enjoyed in the primary due to his rejection of matching funds. The campaign also grew increasingly nasty as the two candidates accused one other of falsehoods and misconduct, ultimately leading Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to withdraw his co-endorsement of Weiss.
Philibosian says Trutanich won through drive, terming him “the hardest working candidate I’ve ever seen.” He also says Trutanich’s performance in office so far is worthy of acknowledgement.
“When he took office, [the office] had huge morale problems,” Philibosian says. “He turned it into an office with tremendous pride in what they are doing and tremendous confidence in him as a leader. He has participated personally on decision-making and strategizing in major civil cases won by the office under his leadership and saved the city millions and millions and millions of dollars.”
Trutanich has indicated in the past that he intends to seek a second term, and often points out that “four years is such a short time, and there are four million lives affected” by his decisions.
One decision that could have a major impact is his pursuit of medicinal marijuana dispensaries based on his conclusion that sales are not authorized under the Compassionate Use Act. Hundreds of dispensaries have opened in Los Angeles, and the city has had almost no control over them since a judge ruled last year that the city’s moratorium on dispensaries was invalid.
Trutanich says he is not trying to limit medical marijuana, but to enforce the law under the California Supreme Court’s decision last year in People v. Mentch, 45 Cal.4th 274. There, the court ruled that a medical marijuana supplier must have provided patrons some previous, other form of caregiving in order to qualify as a “primary caregiver” immune from prosecution for growing or possessing the drug for sale.
He bemoans the Compassionate Use Act’s “lack of structure,” noting:
“There’s only one rule: You need a recommendation. It could be on a matchbox from Dr. Seuss.”
He also contends that medicinal marijuana, as a drug, is subject to regulation under the Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, California’s version of the federal Food and Drug Act. Trutanich says he wants legal, medicinal marijuana to be free from pesticides, which he claims he found plenty of when he had some tested at a federal laboratory.
Trutanich rejects complaints that he is engaging in “reefer madness.”
“We want to make sure it’s good and clean: grown, processed and packaged pursuant to law…,” Trutanich says.
Speculating about the origin of a hypothetical marijuana brownie, he queries:
“In whose kitchen was it made? Were there roaches? Was the sink unwashed? Was there any inspection?”
He answers himself: “You don’t know.”
Trutanich last month achieved a preliminary victory when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant agreed that state law does not allow marijuana sales and issued an order to show cause why Eagle Rock dispensary Hemp Factory V’s operations should not be enjoined.
Trutanich’s chief of staff, Carter, says that under the office’s interpretation of Mentch, “patients and primary caregivers…can get together and grow for the use by the collective.”
Emphasizing that “there is nothing in the law allowing for sales, and certainly not for profit,” Carter envisions limits on dispensaries’ hours of operation and proximity to schools, as well as inspections for quality and cleanliness.
However, the Los Angeles City Council last month adopted language seemingly crafted to maneuver around Trutanich’s position that state law bars the drug’s sale, and a new ordinance remains pending.
Suit Against Chick
In addition to the headaches presented by marijuana dispensaries, Trutanich inherited his predecessor’s 2008 suit against then-Controller Laura Chick, which argued that she acted beyond the scope of her legal authority under the City Charter when she tried to audit a workers’ compensation program in Delgadillo’s office.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney ruled last month that the city controller can conduct financial audits of other elected officials’ offices under the City Charter, but not performance audits. The new city controller, Wendy Greuel, said she intends to file an appeal.
Trutanich and Greuel agreed to initiate an audit in September, but Trutanich’s office has objected to disclosure of information it says is subject to federal privacy law and doctor-patient privilege. The fight was expected to end when both took office, but continued as they argued over whether Greuel could be represented by outside counsel and other issues.
Trutanich suggests that one solution is moving the entire workers’ compensation arena for the city under his auspices.
“Let me manage it,” he says. “I’d do a good job, and you can audit it as it goes. It would be the best in the city.”
Carter, who served with Trutanich in the District Attorney’s Office’s Environmental Crimes Division and spent over 20 years prosecuting state and federal environmental crimes, says his boss has “a big heart.”
“It’s not about him, it’s about people,” Carter comments. “He works harder than anyone else.”
Trutanich’s tendency toward hard work may be to his own detriment. He was recently diagnosed with gallstone pancreatitis after being hospitalized over Thanksgiving weekend with abdominal pains, and an operation to remove his gallbladder has been scheduled for tomorrow.
He said last week that doctors ruled out cancer, and that he should be “good as new” after the operation.
A former marathon runner, Trutanich told the MetNews before his hospitalization that he has had to schedule his time with family since taking office. He and his wife Noreen have four children—one a deputy Los Angeles district attorney, another an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles—and one granddaughter. Trutanich says he hopes his youngest daughter will go to law school.
The city attorney acknowledges the “real cost” his busy schedule takes on his relationship with his family—“I’m missing part of her life,” he says of his granddaughter, who is still less than 1 year old—but says he sleeps easily because he knows he is “tough, but fair.”
Commenting that it is “humbling” and “a great responsibility” to be city attorney, he says:
“I want to work my hardest so I don’t let people down.”
Deputy City Attorney Phil Lam, the city’s intellectual property counsel, says that morale in the office is “actually very high” since Trutanich took office, and reports approval among the rank and file for Trutanich’s managerial appointments.
“He’s putting the right people in the right places,” Lam says, recounting that when Trutanich announced the heads of his civil and criminal branches at an event attended by deputy city attorneys, “the place exploded with extended applause and cheers.”
Some of Trutanich’s deputies have also noticed—some to their surprise, they say—that Trutanich seems to mean it when he says that his philosophy is to do “the right thing for the right reasons to benefit the citizens of Los Angeles.”
Lam, who has been with the office 14 years and met Trutanich after the election, says:
“What repeatedly struck me was, first, his work ethic and secondly, his conviction to do good for the public. As a public servant and member of the public, I really want that.”
Deputy City Attorney Anthony Paul Diaz, a former Young Lawyers representative to the State Bar Board of Governors, says that his new boss “challenges people to be the best they can be and stand up and do what is right.”
“As long as they do so, he will be right there by their side. That’s very positive for a leader.”
Diaz says Trutanich has “worked very hard to meet every [deputy] city attorney, visit every branch, department and…meet the people who work with and for him.”
He adds that Trutanich’s efforts—including hosting and encouraging get-togethers to foster office camaraderie, such as a barbecue last summer and a recent holiday party—have “meant a lot to attorneys in the office.”
“Nuch campaigned on wanting to invest in the troops and raise the level of morale in the office…He has proven to be a man of his word….I’m hearing ‘invigoration,’ because the office hasn’t had a real trial lawyer. He’s removing restraints, and giving people the freedom to do their job. They’re going to trial and winning.”
Such wins, as noted by Trutanich’s office, include the dismissal of a wrongful death suit brought by the family of a 19-month-old girl killed when police stormed a Watts auto dealership in 2005.
Armed and high on cocaine, Jose Raul Pena traded fire with officers who surrounded the lot, then barricaded himself and his daughter in a cramped office. SWAT members, mistakenly believing a sniper had wounded Pena, stormed the office, but Pena opened fire through a thin wall, holding his child in one arm as a shield.
Pena was killed in the crossfire and his daughter died after being struck in the head by a single bullet.
Speaking before the Armenian Bar Assn., Trutanich reflected:
“In the past, the City of L.A. would not have tried that case. It would have settled. But I had a good lawyer on that case—I sat with him for four and a half hours, and went over it, piece by piece….I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to try the case, because it’s time for the City of Los Angeles to stand up.’ And we did. And we won.”
Other prominent victories include a federal court order by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Audrey B. Collins upholding the constitutionality of the city’s billboard ban.
“We had 28 lawsuits from billboard companies that sued the City of Los Angeles,” Trutanich told the Armenian Bar Assn. “We had a history of giving in, losing constantly. And I decided that was not going to happen again on my watch.”
When Liberty Media sued, Trutanich resisted, and gained a favorable ruling by Collins in October. The judge rejected all contentions by the company. She noted in a 30-page ruling:
“As the City itself acknowledges, its past billboard-related actions have been inadequate and ad hoc. The City, however, has expressed an intent to do a better job going forward.”
“Right now, we have a ban because the judge understands that there’s a new sheriff in town,” Trutanich told the lawyers’ group.
In November, Collins dismissed a lawsuit by World Wide Rush LLC, an outdoor billboard company which contended it had a right to a permit because its application was denied during a four-month period when a later-invalidated ban was in place. Collins held that the plaintiff had no vested right.
Groveman says his former subordinate is “less of a politician, more of a trial lawyer.”
Agreeing with Diaz that Trutanich is “a breath of fresh air,” Groveman says that people he knows from his days in the City Attorney’s Office are excited.
“He has this ability to inspire the troops…,” Groveman says. “He’s building an investigative core that will have repercussions in both civil and criminal cases. The city will win because it will be more prepared. Deputies are expressing satisfaction and want to go to the office….I believe the office will rival some of the best firms in town, and he wants [it] to do so.”
‘Lawyer’ in Charge
Trutanich says that one of the most important parts of his transition into office has been making sure that staff knows there is “a lawyer” in charge.
“My job is to research and advise what the law is,” he says. “This is not a political entity….I want to give a good product in terms of the client.”
One of his first actions as city attorney was to name Carter and Chief Legal Advisor Curt Livesay to his staff, calling them a “Dream Team of prosecutorial leadership.” Other top staff members include Senior Media Advisor John A. Franklin, Senior Assistant Jane Usher and Special Assistant City Attorney David Berger.
Livesay is a former chief deputy to then-District Attorney John Van de Kamp who returned from retirement to serve as Cooley’s chief deputy from 2001-06, and then was of counsel to Trutanich•Michel.
Franklin is a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department captain and fellow San Pedro native.
Usher served as counsel to then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and as president of the city’s Planning Commission, as the appointee of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. She was also associate vice president and associate general counsel to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Berger is a former deputy district attorney who ran against Trutanich in the primary election and then threw his support behind Trutanich in the runoff.
Trutanich refers to his former rival as “a fine trial lawyer,” and says he hired Berger because he is “not frightened to give a competitor the top spot” if that is “what’s right to do for the office.”
Berger says he can see and hear an improvement in morale around the office, labeling the situation as “180 degrees from where it was under former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo” where the office “had no contact with staff” and supervisors “shut people out.”
“There is a pair of doors in front of the executive offices. Under the previous administration they were permanently shut. You couldn’t get in. Our doors were open from day one.”
Carter says—without naming names—that his boss is “not an absentee CEO,” adding:
“He’s hands-on, roll up your sleeve, and actually engaged in day to day operations….He thinks like a real litigator and…can go toe-to-toe with anyone on tactics and the law.”
Trutanich approaches the job “as a very active managing partner of a law firm,” Carter continues, often meeting with deputies involved in litigation to see the evidence, review the law and any motions, and discuss whether to proceed to trial.
“He will test the trial team, then look them in the eyes and ask, ‘Are you ready?’ I’ve been to at least 20 of those meetings since I’ve been here, and he has the same intensity in each one.”
Cooley says the new city attorney “shows no fear,” and comments that “L.A. city politics needed someone like him.”
However, Trutanich has been called a “bully” by the president of AEG, the owner of the Staples Center, for seeking to force the company to repay millions of dollars for the cost of city services in connection with the July 7 memorial service for Michael Jackson. The city attorney has hinted indirectly that the company could face criminal charges.
The Los Angeles Times laced into him in an editorial on Oct. 23 for seeking to apply to AEG the city ban on new lighted signs, a ban which had been ruled inapplicable by Collins, on the basis of vested rights, to signs for which a permit had been acquired before the ordinance went into effect. AEG had not gained a permit by that point, but the Times proclaimed: “City Atty. Carmen Trutanich and his staff are overreaching in concluding that [AEG’s] L.A. Live is not ‘vested’ because it hasn’t received a final sign permit. If eight years of city approvals and the company’s huge investments based on them do not constitute vesting, nothing does.”
He has also taken heat from civil libertarians and others over proposed injunctions targeting graffiti and “tagging” crews, and was criticized after being caught on camera last year giving a high five to a staff member upon hearing that the wrongful death suit over the shooting of Jose Raul Pena’s 19-month-old daughter had been dismissed.
Groveman says that “nobody won in a case like that,” but “from a trial standpoint, the city was served in the best way it could be served.
Opining that “tall trees catch all the wind,” he adds:
“It’s a tough job, and there’s not too many I would rather see doing it.”
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company