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Reiner Loses a Case and a D.A.'s Dignity

March 09, 1986|Bill Press | Bill Press, who served as director of the Office of Planning and Research under Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., is a political commentator for KABC-TV.

The great Bobbi Fiedler Campaign Caper is over, and the person most hurt by it is neither Fielder nor state Sen. Ed Davis, but Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner--wounded by his own poor performance.

Throughout the Fielder affair, we did not see the tough, smooth professional we've come to expect in the Los Angeles district attorney. We saw, instead, a Hamlet-like figure who didn't know when to start, when to stop or when to shut up.

Indeed, Reiner's handling of the Fielder case was inept enough to cast serious doubts on his ability to lead the nation's largest local prosecutorial office.

"The responsibility of a public prosecutor differs from that of the usual advocate: his duty is to seek justice, not merely to convict," admonishes the American Bar Assn. in its "Model Code of Professional Conduct." In other words, a district attorney is not just another criminal attorney, out to nail somebody. He is elected to public office, to represent the public. And he's held to a higher standard of conduct. At the very least, according to the American Bar Assn., he is expected to use "restraint in the discretionary exercise of governmental powers, such as in the selection of cases to prosecute."

In the Fiedler case, Reiner exercised no such restraint--not in launching the investigation, not in carrying the case through to the grand jury and certainly not in his public comments after Superior Court Judge Robert T. Altman dismissed charges against both Fiedler and her top aide, Paul Clarke.

Reiner's first decision was his first mistake: getting involved at all. As anyone with political campaign experience knows--as Reiner must know--charges of cheating and corruption fly fast and furious during any election campaign. The unwritten rule among prosecutors is: Don't take campaign charges seriously and never interfere in an ongoing election campaign--unless you've really got the goods. Reiner had one phone call.

According to the transcripts and the testimony, that one call, from Davis supporter George Moss to Davis chief Martha Zilm was one of those vague conversations approximating: "I talked to somebody who talked to somebody else who heard at a cocktail party that Ed might be thinking of dropping out of the race and, if that's true, would you be interested in talking to the Fiedler people about it?"

Big deal. What Davis might have taken as a kindness, he took as a crime. What Reiner should have taken as routine stuff in a primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, he jumped on as Watergate West. On the flimsy evidence of that call, a full-scale criminal investigation was launched.

Mistake No. 2: sticking with it. If there was not much to hang Fiedler with, there was even less to hang her on.

Reiner based his case on one obscure section of the California Elections Code, written in the late 1800s, that had never been tested in the courts and was, if read at all, never quite understood by Reiner.

Clearly, the key words are "advance, pay, solicit or receive." Money has to be sought, or money has to change hands, in return for dropping out of a race. There was no evidence, even Reiner agreed, of any such action by Fiedler. In fact, he did not recommend her indictment.

But he did push for an indictment of Clarke. Yet hours of taped conversations between Zilm, Clarke, Fiedler and Fiedler pollster Arnold Steinberg produced no more damning evidence than a Clarke "offer" to help Davis with his deficit, but never to "advance, pay, solicit or receive."

But those words didn't stop Reiner. He tried to sidestep the law, by redefinition. Deputy Dist. Atty. Candace D. Beason improperly instructed the grand jury that "offer" meant the same as "solicit." Just as Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven A. Sowders would later argue before the court that "offer meant the same as 'advance.' " But what worked on the grand jury didn't work on the judge. He threw the case against Clarke out of court.

Now, normally, you could blame a big botch like this on poor staff work--a weak case put together by bureaucrats who don't know how campaigns work and who don't know the law. There is one major hole in that explanation: Reiner himself approved this case.

In any large government agency, like the district attorney's office, an inexperienced staff with no real-world political experience may often dream up a great case where, in fact, none exists. But that's why we elect a politically sophisticated district attorney--to overrule the bureaucracy. And no one brought more political experience to the office of district attorney than Reiner. Indeed, he had waged skillful campaigns for both city comptroller and city attorney.

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