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U.S. Atty. Levi, Capitol Probe --Painstaking and Low-Key

June 05, 1989|DAN MORAIN and PAUL JACOBS | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — David F. Levi seems an unlikely crime-buster.

Soft-spoken and bespectacled, the Sacramento-based U.S. attorney for the eastern district of California looks to be more scholar than cop.

But this son of a college president--and a U.S. attorney general--has engineered a sweeping 3 1/2-year investigation of political corruption that has rocked the state Capitol and led to the indictments of Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier) and a former top aide, plus a local sheriff and his former chief deputy. More indictments are likely to follow.

Levi, 37, one of the youngest U.S. attorneys in the nation, is neither brash nor flashy. He is methodical and contemplative.

He is so careful, in fact, that many politicians complain that he has tarnished the reputations of all elected officials by taking so long to complete his investigation. Even some FBI agents complained that Levi was cautious to a fault--reluctant to bring the investigation to an end and take his chances in court.

'All in Due Course'

Levi does not apologize for his painstaking approach. "All in due course," he says when pressed for a timetable of possible prosecutions.

While he talks loftily about the importance of cleansing the political system, he insists that he is not a crusader.

"I'm not here to remake the political world for the state of California," Levi said, then paused to find the right word to explain why not. "That would be hubris on my part."

While he seems to enjoy the headlines and television coverage that flow from a highly visible corruption case, Levi shies away from anything that might appear sensational or flamboyant. At a press conference called to announce the Montoya indictment, the U.S. attorney hardly strayed from a prepared statement--a clinical description of the charges that provided very few details. He took few questions and answered even fewer.

In an interview, he seemed less at ease discussing political corruption than talking about the law in 19th-Century England, the topic of his nearly finished doctoral thesis in history at Harvard.

Like his father, Edward H. Levi, the former University of Chicago president and law school dean who became President Gerald Ford's attorney general, Levi exchanged academia for a life of wiretaps, stings and snitches. But while Levi has left the university, the university has not left Levi.

As a boy in Chicago, Levi was not the sort who would skip school to spend the day at Wrigley Field. He is a product of the university's Laboratory School, and palled around with the sons and daughters of professors who became professors themselves. He recalled spending hours discussing Rousseau with his father when he was in high school.

Serious Charges

Such father-son talks paid off. At 37, Levi is one of the youngest U.S. attorneys in the country, in charge of an expansive 87,000-square-mile region stretching from the Oregon border to Kern County--including the richest state Capitol of all, where millions flow into campaign coffers and, according to the grand jury, occasionally fuel legislation.

On May 17, Levi announced the grand jury indictment of Montoya and his former aide, Amiel A. Jaramillo, on extortion and racketeering charges, contending that the two had used their positions to exact campaign contributions and speaking fees from those with interests in legislation. Montoya has issued a statement asserting his innocence. Jaramillo's attorney, Christopher H. Wing, has attacked the indictment of his client as a misuse of federal racketeering statutes originally enacted to prosecute mobsters.

As an outgrowth of the Capitol investigation, Levi is also prosecuting two law enforcement officials, Yolo County Sheriff Rod Graham and his former top deputy, Wendell Luttrull. The two are charged with extorting $3,650 in payments from a West Sacramento developer who at the time was an undercover informant in the investigation of the Legislature. Graham pleaded not guilty to the charge. Luttrull, who pleaded guilty, has agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Federal sources have said that other indictments are likely to follow--but only when Levi decides he is ready to move ahead.

Long Wait

And that could mean a long wait. In fact, the sources say the probe could go on for years and become a fact of political life in Sacramento.

The Montoya indictment came nine months after about 30 FBI agents armed with search warrants raided the Capitol offices of the Whittier Democrat, three other legislators and two aides. The raid was the culmination of an elaborate sting operation in which FBI agents posing as businessmen tried to enlist support for special-interest bills that would help them finance a shrimp processing plant.

FBI officials in Sacramento thought that they had essentially wrapped up the sting investigation last November, only to be told that Levi wanted even more information.

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