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Corruption Cases Are a Specialty for Capizzi : Profile: D.A. made his mark prosecuting politicians in the '70s, and his office is turning up the heat again in O.C.


Earlier this month, prosecutors ended a 2 1/2-year conflict-of-interest investigation of Brea Councilman Carrey J. Nelson, concluding there was no evidence of a crime.

"My family and I have been under a great deal of stress for more than a full year," Nelson said after the investigation ended.

And a jury found Wedin innocent last December after he was accused of a conflict in urging fellow council members to award a city contract to an engineering company he had worked for.

Capizzi's prosecutors "can cause all kinds of difficulties for people, and if they cannot sustain those charges, they are not responsible for anything they've done," Wedin said. "It's clear that things don't happen in the D.A.'s office without (Capizzi's) knowledge and approval, so what's happening is a reflection of his personal style."

But Capizzi is unfazed by criticism that his office makes much out of little.

It is unfair, he says, to assess the most recent political corruption cases, without also considering those he tried in the 1970s, obtaining convictions of two members of the County Board of Supervisors and a former congressman.

Also often overlooked, he said, is the district attorney's role in helping federal prosecutors convict W. Patrick Moriarty, who served 29 months in federal prison for political corruption.

"You don't want to win 100% of the cases, or you're not calling them quite right," he said. "I don't view the won-lost record as a vindication for anyone (we've tried). . . . Our overall record is great. . . ."

The record is mostly Capizzi's, who joined the district attorney's office in 1964 and, at age 30, became the youngest member of the office management team when he was elevated to an assistant district attorney.

During the 1970s and 1980s, under Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks, it was clear who handled the grand jury and got indictments returned.

"He was always Mr. Hicks' out-front guy on political corruption. He has the talent for it, and that was the job he was given. . . . There was always a priority on that," said John Gier, who worked under Capizzi in the district attorney's office as a senior investigator on many major political corruption cases during that time.

When it came to political corruption, Gier said, there were never any "sacred cows." Capizzi made clear to his prosecutors and investigators that he didn't want potential violations of state political laws to stay "buried in the bureaucracy" as they had in some counties, he said.

"He just told us, 'If you're investigating my mother, let me know, because I might be having dinner with her tonight,' " Gier said.

James D. Riddet, an Orange defense attorney who has helped represent four Roth aides subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, remembers Capizzi as a tough courtroom opponent in the 1970s when Capizzi was prosecuting County Supervisor Ralph A. Diedrich for bribery.

Capizzi wasn't flashy and brought a straightforward, "sincere" approach to the jury in the high-profile case, proving particularly impressive with the thorough manner in which he presented complicated financial evidence, Riddet said.

"It was not at all a clear-cut case," he said. "I thought I got him. But Capizzi got the conviction."

Capizzi rose to chief assistant under Dist. Atty. Hicks, and when Hicks was appointed a judge, Capizzi ran for his seat in 1990.

Capizzi had an advantage. Hicks left the job early and the County Board of Supervisors appointed Capizzi to fill the vacant district attorney position, a designation that appeared on the ballot beside his name despite a legal fight by his opponents. He won a runoff election with nearly 55% of the vote.

"He's trying to be progressive and experimenting with change in the office," said Mike Jacobs, a senior trial attorney who backed two of Capizzi's opponents during the 1990 election. "He's made attempts to reorganize the office and he's made efforts at promoting women."

Gary Schons, the senior assistant state attorney general in San Diego who worked with Capizzi on political corruption cases of the 1970s, said Capizzi has made the office much more professional than it had been under Hicks.

"Mike knows his business," Schons said. "He's done a wide array of cases: homicide, political corruption, major dope. And he has a very experienced supervisory staff that appears to be there on merit as opposed to friendship and merit."

Assistant Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade, who oversees public corruption cases in the office, described Capizzi as a manager who doesn't like to "meddle," leaving key decisions to his deputies. But he said it's tough to forget that the boss once prosecuted these very same types of cases himself.

Often, Capizzi will get a "glint in his eye" when he hears lawyers returning from a trial, joining in himself with old "war stories" and suggesting tactics, Wade said.

"He's a great resource," Wade said. "He's done it before, and if he sees it going too far out of whack, I'm sure he'd step right in and say, 'Hey, let's take a look at this.' "

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