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Is Miller Losing Control of D.A.'s Office? : After 17 Years, Aloof Law Enforcement Officer Faces Doubts, Problems : Miller Claims He's Apolitical; Some Insist Otherwise

September 20, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

When defense lawyer C. Logan McKechnie was Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller's press spokesman in the 1970s, the angriest he ever saw Miller get was when he urged his boss to weigh the political ramifications of a police shooting case.

"He said to me, 'In this office, we don't do anything from a political standpoint,' " McKechnie recalled. "He felt like I should know him better than to even think he should make a decision from a political standpoint."

Miller--who won office two decades ago by campaigning against politics-as-usual--counts apolitical, nonpartisan prosecution as one of the tenets of his administration.

A Democrat, his top aides have mainly been Republicans, though he applies no political test in hiring. He refuses campaign contributions from deputies and travels to other counties to advise prosecutors on how to combat the partisan traditions of local politics. He can count at least 13 campaign supporters that his office has prosecuted or sued.

Yet some of Miller's targets, and many of their supporters, are firmly convinced that Miller has had a political agenda beyond the good-government principles he proclaims. Miller, they charge, has

spent a career in elective office paying back a debt to two of his earliest backers, financiers Richard Silberman and Robert Peterson.

O'Connor Link

The critics link events nearly 20 years apart to make their case. Miller's pursuit in the 1970s of C. Arnholt Smith and his cronies, they contend, not only brought down Smith's corrupt financial empire but advanced the dominion Silberman and Peterson were creating. In the mid-1980s, the prosecution of San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, the critics argue, made it possible for Maureen O'Connor--Peterson's wife since 1977 and one of the few candidates Miller has ever endorsed--to obtain the office Hedgecock had denied her at the polls in 1983.

Both mayors who fell to Miller-inspired prosecutions insist they were the victims of political attacks.

"He prosecuted me," said former Mayor Frank Curran, who lost a reelection battle to Pete Wilson in 1971 after his acquittal in the Yellow Cab scandals. "That was strictly in my book a political move. I haven't gotten over that."

Hedgecock--whose claims of a political vendetta were repeatedly rejected by the courts during his trials on campaign finance violation charges--remains convinced that Miller's motives were impure.

"It was fairly clear that, (O'Connor) having lost the election, Ed Miller was going to become the instrument of Maureen O'Connor's return by application of the criminal investigative process," the ex-mayor said.

'Young Turks' Defended

Silberman says he, Peterson and the other so-called "Young Turks" backed Miller in 1970 to change San Diego politics, not to destroy Smith. He describes Miller as a man of integrity who has not used his office for political purposes.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman, Miller's top lieutenant for 15 years and the prosecutor in Hedgecock's first trial, said Miller actually was reluctant to investigate the mayor's campaign finances.

"I was there. I watched him," Huffman said. "There was never a 'let's go get that SOB' or 'let's cause him problems' or 'Maureen needs help.' It was 'Let's reserve our judgment. Let's wait and see.' "

Miller himself is adamant on the subject.

"I don't owe anybody in this community a political debt," he insists. "Not a single person has ever tried to use their political support for the purpose of influencing me or any decision I've made."

People know better, Miller said. "I would like to think people don't attempt to exert influence on me," he said, "because they know who I am and what I believe in."

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