Tuesday, April 19, 2016
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 158
Three Government Attorneys, Two Private Practitioners Compete
By ROGER M. GRACE
Candidates vying for this office, and their ballot designations, are Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys David Berger, (“Violent Crimes Prosecutor”) and Fred Mesropi (“Child Molestation Prosecutor”), Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Onica Valle Cole (“Prosecutor”), privale practitioner Naser “Nas” Khoury (“Law Professor/Attorney”) and Deputy Attorney General Kim L. Nguyen (“Deputy Attorney General”). Berger—whose “Los Angeles Dragnet” blog is followed by many in the legal community—has the greatest name recognition, but it is probably Nguyen who has the edge in this contest; her husband is a partner in a major political consulting firm, SGA Campaigns, and she is believed to be on the majority of the slate mailers. Berger is represented by David Gould, who has been highly successful in orchestrating judicial campaigns in recent years. Today: a look at the complex and controversial Berger.
Candidate, Born in Britain, Is Known for His ‘Los Angeles Dragnet’ Blog
Deputy District Attorney and widely read blogger David Berger—whose British accent is so prominent that attorneys might be tempted to address him, should he become a judge, as “My Lord”—says he would have had no chance of ascending to the bench had he remained in his native England.
Despite some reforms, the judiciary there is “still very much an old boy’s club,” he says, noting:
“I’m not a member of that club”
Most of the judges of the High Court (which in England and Wales is roughly equivalent to a California superior court prior to unification) “went to Eton,...Harrow or Cambridge,” Berger says.
His own undergraduate degree is from the less prestigious University of London.
“I really think I can be a good judge,” Berger remarks, but says that outside the United States, “that probably would not be possible because I don’t know the right people, I’m not from the right family.”
He says the U.S. offers “enormous opportunities” to people “regardless of their backgrounds, regardless of their wealth, status,” and observes:
“It’s an equal opportunities country. And the fact that an ordinary person like myself could aspire to be a judge, is part of what makes America the best place to live.”
Emigrates to U.S.
Berger, 59, whose mother was an American, often visited the U.S. during his youth. He emigrated here in 1989, after having studied two years at the University of London, while working in the family’s real estate company. He returned to the U.K. in 1990 following his father’s death, wrapped up the affairs of the London business, and in 1992 resumed his studies there, gaining his degree.
Back to the U.S.: he earned his law degree at Loyola in 1997, and that same year joined the District Attorney’s Office, first as a volunteer certified law clerk, then as a salaried law clerk. In December of 1997, Berger was admitted to the State Bar and, the following year, was hired as a deputy district attorney.
That was under the administration of District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Steve Cooley assumed the office in 2000, and served for 12 years. He says of Berger:
“He is very smart, principled, and sees the dynamics of complex situations. He is also courageous.”
(The “ger” in his name is pronounced not like the last syllable in “hamburger,” but like “jur” in “jury,” or, as he would hope to be, “jurist.”)
From 2002-04, Berger was assigned by Cooley to the Sheriff’s Department in Lancaster. Though a fledgling member of the office, he was put in charge of an effort that gained national attention.
The idea was to post signs warning that a particular area of the city, roughly a square mile, where a high level of shootings and drug dealings were occurring, was to be a “Drug-Free Zone,” alerting persons obliged to avoid drug-dealing areas—probationers and parolees—not to enter.
A May 13, 2003 article in the Christian Science Monitor explains:
“Similar ways of limiting the movement of criminals have been tried elsewhere and been struck down for constitutional reasons. The current plan—known as the Lancaster Community Appreciation Project (LAN-CAP)—may avoid similar legal rulings, according to David Berger, the deputy district attorney for Los Angeles county who designed the plan.
“ ‘These zones are merely an aid to judges who want to use them, not a formal mandate telling them what to do.’ says Mr. Berger. ‘We believe that is why this will not run afoul of the Constitution.’
“For years, Berger noticed that judges who were spelling out probation restrictions to probationers in the courtroom were often very specific about some requirements—‘no drug use’ or ‘report to probation officer monthly.’ But when it came time to spell out where parolees could go and whom to associate with, directions were often vague.”
Berger is quoted in the article as saying that orders such as “Stay away from areas where drugs may be sold” were meaningless “because who knows what that means?” Denomination of areas where drug trafficking had been occurring as “Drug-Free Zones” and thus off bounds would create requisite specificity, Berger contended.
Introducing a segment on CNN, then-anchor Lou Dobbs (now a radio host on Fox Business Network) declared that “[p]rosecutors in one California city, faced with budget cuts and rising crime, have come up with an interesting crime fighting technique,” saying that “they’re going to completely bar” some convicted criminals “from certain parts of town.”
Reporter Casey Wian says in the report:
“County prosecutor David Berger is leading the effort to keep criminals out by making this dozen-block neighborhood off limits to people on probation or parole.”
Then-USC Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, now dean and “distinguished professor of law” at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, appears in the segment, protesting:
“What if a person holds a job in that area of the city? Or wants to visit a parent or a best friend or go to a restaurant in that area of the city?”
In the report, Berger retorts:
“There’s only one reason to be there, and it’s not to visit your aging mama or your dear auntie or your granddad—it’s to buy drugs, and everybody knows that.”
Berger later brought out that there were no restaurants or other businesses in the zone.
A May 12, 2004 news story in the Los Angeles Times announces:
“The Los Angeles County prosecutor who introduced a number of controversial crime-fighting programs in Lancaster is leaving the city because funding for his position has expired.”
The article explains that Berger’s post had been funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant, which expired about nine months earlier. It says:
“Since then, the cash-strapped Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has offered to let the city fund the position, but Lancaster officials declined, said Donna Wills, head deputy for the D.A.’s community prosecution division.”
So, Berger was transferred to his office’s Major Frauds Division in June of 2004. The LAN-CAP program remains in existence, but without the major commitment of the District Attorney’s Office it initially enjoyed.
Cooley, who is endorsing Berger, recalls:
“The Lancaster gang problem was growing and spreading like a fast and bad cancer.”
He says that Berger “came up with an idea to address it in a focused way,” reflecting:
“Whether it succeeded or not, I do not know. At least he tried.”
City Attorney Candidate
In 2008, he launched his campaign for the office of Los Angeles city attorney, setting forth his views via a blog called “David Berger on Los Angeles.” It was, like his current blog, “Los Angeles Dragnet,” hard-hitting, and meticulously documented.
Berger is seen at a May 13, 2009 press conference in front of City Hall. He was joined by then-City Council member Dennis Zine and mayoral candidate Kevin James.
He assailed the frontrunner in the race, then-City Council member Jack Weiss, for ducking debates and for allegedly illegal fundraising activities.
Weiss came in first in the March 3, 2009 primary, and attorney Carmen Trutanich was second. Berger was fourth, with 13.95 percent of the vote.
He backed Trutanich in the May 19, 2009 run-off, and was instrumental in the relatively unknown challenger defeating the well known—although somewhat unpopular among Fifth District constituents—Weiss.
Following the election, Berger worked on Trutanich’s transition team and, when the new city attorney took office July 1, 2009, Berger was his special assistant. He discontinued his blog in June of 2009.
Berger left the City Attorney’s Office, abruptly, after nine months, returning to the District Attorney’s Office.
Cooley says he took Berger back in the office “enthusiastically,” explaining that he is “a solid, proven prosecutor.”
“To his credit, he was very discreet” in “discussing his reasons for departing his position.”
Berger has said, publicly, that Trutanich asked him to do something that was unethical, but has declined to elaborate.
However, in a Feb. 12, 2012 posting on his resuscitated “David Berger on Los Angeles” blog, Berger alludes to his departure from the office, saying that Trutanich—now running for district attorney—was “the man I voted for, the man I worked for, and the man I dumped when I could not tolerate the culture of corruption a moment longer.” (His final posting on that blog was later that month.)
Berger was a persistent critic of his former boss, hammering away at him on the new Dragnet blog, inaugurated Jan. 1, 2010. He spotlighted Trutanich’s 2008 breached pledge that if elected, he would not run for any other office during his four-year term or, if reelected, during the next four-year term.
Trutanich was eliminated in the primary, defeated in his 2013 race for reelection, and is now said to be seeking appointment to a Superior Court judgeship in San Diego.
Berger has expressed himself freely on controversial subjects, and therefore has attracted critics—some expressing themselves in terms more abrasive than anything found in the prosecutor’s own commentaries.
The LA Weekly’s May 9, 2013 edition says that “[s]everal of Trutanich’s friends became fixated with David Berger,” opining that his blog “should have been a mere annoyance, but several of Trutanich’s friends saw it as a serious threat.” It reports that in an email “to Trutanich’s circle,” a “friend,” Mort Allen, termed Berger “a ‘British National Phsycopath’ [sic] who may be trying to front the major drug cartels trying to take over the DA office.”
Allen, since deceased, was a realtor, financial backer of Trutanich, and close consultant.
Berger was critical of the leadership of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, particularly when the group was headed by then-Deputy D.A. Steve Ipsen, later fired from the office for misconduct. A look-alike blog to Berger’s “Los Angeles Dragnet” was mounted on the Internet, called “DragnetLA,” featuring at the top, like Berger’s, a likeness of Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, a depiction of City Hall, and the words, frequently heard from Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.” It was active on 2011 and 2012, and is still accessible. It contains postings such as this, with letters here replaced by dashes:
“Deputy District Attorney David Berger, a main henchman in the Steve Cooley-Jacquelyn Lacey smear machine, has officially ‘s—t the bed.’ Last week he posted several posts that were complete c—p. We point this out to highlight that some blogs tell the truth, and some peddle complete fiction.”
Jackie Lacey was in 2012 elected district attorney and has been reelected this year without opposition.
The URL “http://davidbergerforjudge.com” might well be assumed to be the address of Berger’s campaign website. It’s not. It’s the address of a single-page anti-Berger website launched in February which proclaims:
“TMZ-like blogger and Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County David Berger has announced he will run for judge. But is he qualified? Not even close!
“Deputy District Attorney David Berger has spent the last 3-5 years blogging during county time, on the tax payers dime, trashing his colleagues and lying on-line at the expense of the tax payers, rather than protecting the public.”
Berger has steadfastly denied that he devotes time to his blog during working hours. New postings by him (as “Joe Friday”) generally appear around 10 p.m. (His postings on his earlier website were as “Rumpole,” a fictional barrister depicted in BBC television productions, aired in the U.S. on PBS stations.)
His blog currently has write-ups on the various judicial candidates—including his opponents—with links to their campaign websites. Unlike his website in 2008-09, the Dragnet blog contains no electioneering.
His various detractors have apparently provided sufficient negative input to the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee as to cause Berger to incur the tentative evaluation as “not qualified.”
He was told in an email from the JEEC subcommittee:
“There have been questions raised about judicial temperament and demeanor, in particular arising out of temperament and demeanor in the context of political activities.”
By contrast, Head Deputy District Attorney Richard Doyle says of Berger:
“He’s a very hard working, very intelligent, very seasoned deputy district attorney who I think would make an excellent judge.”
He’s endorsed by Lacey, Cooley, and former District Attorney Robert H. Philibosian.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company