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AN ASSESSMENT : IRA REINER : As D.A., a Quiet Zeal Has Replaced Maverick's High-Visibility Tactics

September 03, 1985|ROBERT W. STEWART and PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writers

The shock of white hair and the resonant baritone were familiar enough, but the cause that brought Ira Reiner to Sacramento twice within 36 hours one week last month might have surprised those only casually acquainted with Los Angeles County's maverick district attorney.

Reiner, a Westside Democrat with strong ties to liberal politicians and many of their issues, was throwing his political prestige and the authority of his office behind bills that would:

- Toughen California's death-penalty law by overturning several state Supreme Court rulings and broadening the number of crimes covered.

- Grant California law enforcement officials the power to tap the telephones of suspected drug dealers and other criminals.

- Allow the governor to unilaterally block the release of prisoners ordered set free by the Board of Prison Terms.

Reiner's unrepentant zeal in helping shepherd tough law-and-order measures through the Legislature might seem anomalous for a man who rose to political power by attacking such targets as free-spending public officials, industrial polluters, slumlords and police officers who spied on the public.

But it is not the only surprise that Reiner, who has been labeled everything from a phony to a folk hero, has sprung since he took over as the county's top law enforcement official last Dec. 3.

In his previous positions as Los Angeles city attorney and controller, Reiner, 49, often was attacked as a grandstander who could rarely resist the urge to call a press conference. But these days, he is described by friends and even some opponents as restrained.

'Slightly Demagogic'

"He got ahead by being a headline grabber and a slightly demagogic politician," said Harland W. Braun, a prominent Westside defense lawyer who has contributed to Reiner campaigns.

"All of a sudden, he becomes D.A. and he has stayed out of the headlines. . . . Now it's important for him to be perceived as a responsible politician. I think he's making the transition."

Some, however, such as a veteran prosecutor who supported former Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian--whom Reiner soundly defeated in last year's election--still have misgivings.

"I don't trust politicians. He's too good a politician. . . . If you ask me how he's doing, it's too early to tell," said the prosecutor, who insisted on anonymity. He added that Reiner's frequent trips to Sacramento and his installation of a full-time lobbyist there may be more a measure of the district attorney's political ambition than his commitment to law-and-order legislation.

Despite that criticism, most prosecutors interviewed by The Times gave Reiner high marks for what they regard as the quiet, professional manner in which he and his top aides have managed the office.

Stinging Jabs

If Reiner has been less vocal, he has hardly been silent. Like a cagey prizefighter biding his time in the early rounds, he continues to throw his share of stinging jabs.

In January, Reiner urged property owners to quickly file claims against Denver-based Manville Corp. to recover the cost of removing aging asbestos insulation from their homes. Reiner acted as a deadline approached in federal court in New York City, where Manville had filed for protection from creditors.

In June, Reiner attacked the Metropolitan Water District for labeling as "safe" a new disinfectant introduced into the district's water supply when, Reiner asserted, questions remained about its long-term health effects.

In July, he proposed a bold $7.4-million program to reduce jail overcrowding and court backlogs by hiring 50 new prosecutors, shipping criminal cases to the civil courthouse and opening courts on Saturdays.

And just last month, in a letter mailed to California's 58 district attorneys, Reiner proposed tough new sanctions for air polluters and accused seven major oil companies of willfully releasing toxins into the air.

"I suppose the . . . formal way to describe it is management by objectives," Reiner explained during a recent interview in his office on the 18th floor of the Criminal Courts Building. "You set certain objectives, whether it be two or three or half a dozen. And then you try to work towards those."

As the largest prosecuting agency in the state with 712 lawyers, Reiner said, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office ". . . should play a major role in the legislation that comes out of Sacramento."

"In fact, in the past, it has not played a major role. . . . Because of the sheer size, it's never been ignored, but it has never been a major player in terms of really shaping what goes on. . . .

"Second," he said, "is the problem of the criminal justice system moving with the speed of a herd of turtles. . . . Everyone has talked about that. Frankly nothing has been done about it, ever, other than dealing in the most trivial way with the problem."

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