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Is Miller Losing Control of D.A.'s Office? : After 17 Years, Aloof Law Enforcement Officer Faces Doubts, Problems

September 20, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

The thing that grabs the public the most is the fact that the D.A.'s office has been headed by the same person so long that it has fallen behind the times. . . . We need fresh blood in that office. --Edwin Miller, May, 1970

Ed Miller leans his big, graying head back and laughs. He doesn't remember the quote, a relic mined from the archives of the bitter race that won him the office he has retained, virtually without challenge, for 17 long years. And he can't imagine anybody saying the same thing about him today.

After all, he is a champion of impossible causes--the good-government crusader who began his tenure as district attorney by dismantling the old-boy power structure that for decades had controlled San Diego and who less than two years ago drove a popular, but corrupt, mayor from City Hall.

He is the innovator whose office for two decades has set a standard for the prosecuting profession. He has advised three U.S. attorneys general, headed the national prosecutors' association, and lectured legislators. He has fought special interests and kept his community off limits to organized crime.

Others Eye Office

Nonetheless, a new generation of wolves is prowling for fresh blood in the San Diego County district attorney's office. For the first time in Miller's tenure, key players in the criminal justice system are voicing the view that Miller's magic is fading, his clout slipping, his time passing.

A series of embarrassments and setbacks has prompted the doubts: the acquittal of Sagon Penn amid charges that prosecution witnesses lied and hid evidence; the filing of a theft charge against one of the prosecutors in the case; the acquittal of former county Registrar Ray Ortiz on corruption charges; an international outcry over his refusal to prosecute a federal officer who shot a young Mexican across the border, and more.

The missteps, Miller's critics say, simply reinforce the appearance of chronic deterioration in his 185-lawyer office. Miller's pace of innovation has slowed, they say. His staff has been depleted by judicial appointments and defections. His management team is in disarray. The independence of his scrutiny of law enforcement wrongdoing is under attack. His office has grown so large, and Miller's role in running it is so obscure, that some of his deputies don't know who Ed Miller is and what he wants his organization to stand for.

The convictions still roll in: San Diego County prosecutors dispatched a record 1,509 felons to state prison last year, Miller proudly notes. And at 61, "the Boss"--who has more than three years remaining in this, his fifth, term in office--probably remains invulnerable to electoral defeat, political observers guess.

Lately, though, there are cracks in Miller's once-impregnable facade.

"What we're seeing is the sharks are circling, the buzzards are on high," said San Diego lawyer Robert O'Neill, a

former Superior Court judge and longtime deputy district attorney whose fondness for Miller is undiminished. "They see Ed Miller nearing the end of a career, and people are picking their spots."

Miller, strong and silent, phlegmatic and poker-faced, isn't surprised by the criticism. "At this stage of my career, I expect that kind of comment to arise," he said early this month. "I think it's almost inevitable."

But Miller, whose stubborn resolve edges into brusque defensiveness, says the critics are wrong.

"I get reports on everything that happens. If everything is in bad shape, I should be one of the first to know," Miller says. "And such is not the case."

Miller's insistence that he remains in full command of a sound ship is contradicted by the candid appraisals of a score of deputy prosecutors, former deputies, judges and others in the criminal justice system.

Four debilitating factors, each of them integral elements of Miller's regime, have hobbled Miller's leadership and dampened respect both for Miller himself and for the office he leads, the critics say:

- Tremendous growth in the district attorney's office has made the organization far more difficult to manage.

- Miller's personal aloofness and intolerance of criticism, combined with his reliance on an old-fashioned chain of command, have distanced him from his growing staff and shielded him from constructive criticism.

- After years of stability, the office is experiencing an awkward transition in the ranks of Miller's top lieutenants.

- Staff expansion and turnover have robbed the office of depth and experience, even as Miller's very endurance in office has cast a sense of inertia and aimlessness over the sprawling prosecution operations.

Growth is the easiest consideration to measure. Miller's staff of lawyers has doubled, from 92 to 185, during his 17 years in office. Overall, his office employs nearly 600 on a budget of $27 million--a tenfold increase over the $2.7 million budget of 1970-71.

Ability to Act Diluted

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