A plan that would have allowed California's top cop to police the state's vast prison system died a quiet death last week in the state Capitol, leaving the attorney general frustrated about the power of the prison guards' union and his inability to crack down on rogue guards.
The bill would have removed prison brutality cases from the purview of local prosecutors and placed them in the hands of Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. After all, supporters reasoned, prisons are the province of the state, and the state's top law enforcement officer is the attorney general.
The bill sailed smoothly through the Senate, but before it was heard Tuesday in the Assembly, it came under intense lobbying from a single foe: the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. As testimony to the union's clout, the bill never made it out of the Assembly's Public Safety Committee.
Without the new law, the attorney general's much ballyhooed idea for forming a separate unit to investigate and prosecute corrupt guards is dead.
"The CCPOA torpedoed this thing," Lockyer said. "One of the assemblymen who voted against it, Jim Battin, pulled me aside and said, 'Bill, sorry, but I'm whoring for the CCPOA.' At least he was honest. The others who voted against it were either stupid or disingenuous.
"Frankly, I'm pretty outraged, because I really believe it was an important reform for this state."
Battin (R-La Quinta), who has received $105,000 in campaign contributions from the union in the last four years, did not return phone calls seeking comment. A staff member said Battin did not want to engage in a tiff with the attorney general.
But Assemblyman Rico Oller (R-San Andreas), who also voted to defeat the bill, said the proposed law was "bad public policy" that failed to account for local prosecutors who do their jobs well.
"The basic argument that the attorney general made was that local prosecutors statewide don't have the guts to withstand pressure from CCPOA," Oller said. "I take tremendous exception to that. . . . This is nothing more than expansion of state authority at the expense of the locals."
Union leaders say they have to play hardball to protect their interests. "We took that bill very seriously and worked it hard," said Jeff Thompson, the union's chief lobbyist in Sacramento. "[But] the idea that we push around and intimidate local district attorneys is pure balderdash. Any good D.A. would bristle at that thought."
Last summer, after enduring six days of anguished testimony concerning prison brutality and cover-up, a handful of state senators set about finding ways to prevent the debacle of Corcoran State Prison from happening elsewhere.
The legislative hearings in Sacramento had detailed all sorts of problems inside the San Joaquin Valley prison. Testimony showed that the system meant to root out brutality by guards had broken down. The district attorney watching over Corcoran said he lacked the manpower to probe and prosecute guards and the temerity to take on their powerful union.
So one lawmaker, Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), came up with the idea for reform. His bill, SB 451, would have consolidated major brutality cases from the state's 33 prisons under one roof, an autonomous unit that would have the resources to probe members of the prison guard union.
The union has emerged as one of the most potent political forces in California by contributing millions of dollars to local and state politicians, including about $2 million last year to support Gov. Gray Davis. Union President Don Novey, sporting his smart suits and ever present Panama hats, seems to pop up everywhere in the state Capitol.
Lockyer, for one, said the guards' union has no desire to take cases away from local prosecutors. Not one district attorney in the state has ever prosecuted a guard for any of the shooting deaths of 39 inmates and wounding of 200 more over the last decade.
It wasn't until last year, after the Corrections Department relented to media scrutiny and formed an independent panel to review some of the shootings, that the extent of the official neglect was made clear.
The panel found that nearly 80% of the 31 shootings it examined at Corcoran were not justified.
"It's no secret that the CCPOA's involvement in politics has intimidated some D.A.'s, and they lack the resources so it becomes easy to rationalize not going forward with a criminal case against a correctional officer," Lockyer said. He added that the statewide association representing local prosecutors even supported the bill.
While the attorney general has the constitutional power to intervene at any time in a local crime investigation, the office traditionally defers to county district attorneys as the front-line prosecutors.
Last year, in a story in The Times detailing the failure of state watchdogs to investigate wrongdoing at Corcoran, the nation's most deadly prison, former Kings County Dist. Atty. Gary Gonsalves made a surprising concession.