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Decision 2000 / LOCAL ELECTIONS

Cooley Says He'll Retool D.A.'s Office

Prosecutor: For starters, he plans to reexamine Rafael Perez's plea deal in Rampart corruption case. Garcetti, defeated in bitter race, pledges his support during transition.

November 09, 2000|MITCHELL LANDSBERG and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles County's newly elected district attorney said Wednesday that he will reexamine a plea bargain with disgraced former LAPD officer Rafael Perez to determine whether it can be scrapped if Perez has violated its terms.

Steve Cooley, who called the Perez plea bargain the "worst of the century," also announced plans for a sweeping reorganization of the prosecutor's office. He said former Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp will lead his transition team.

Incumbent Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti conceded defeat Wednesday, acknowledging the obvious: Voters want a change. Final unofficial returns showed Cooley with 63.7% of the vote in Tuesday's runoff to Garcetti's 36.3%.

Garcetti's slice of the vote was 1% lower than his share in a three-way March primary, suggesting that his million-dollar campaign had done little, if anything, to change the minds of voters who wanted him out.

Cooley said Garcetti called him Wednesday morning to offer his congratulations and to promise his help in ensuring a smooth transition despite the deep personal animus that divides the men.

A short time later, Cooley appeared at a news conference at the hotel in Universal City where he had spent a long night with hundreds of jubilant supporters celebrating his victory. He promised to set aside the intense rancor of the campaign and set a new course for the nation's largest local prosecutorial agency.

"I love the office of district attorney," said Cooley, who has been a prosecutor for 26 years. "Bitterness and recriminations--that's not going to be part of it."

Cooley will inherit an office now facing one of its greatest challenges: the prosecution of anti-gang police officers accused of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division. As he did during the campaign, Cooley refused to discuss the case now underway against four officers, saying it would be improper for him to comment about active prosecutions. But, in response to questions, he did touch on the subject of the plea bargain under which Perez received immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony about a wide range of alleged crimes by LAPD officers.

The value of that testimony was called into question recently when Perez was implicated--although he has not been charged--in multiple homicides. Without directly mentioning the murder investigation, Cooley hinted that Perez might have violated his agreement with prosecutors.

"If someone doesn't fulfill his end of the bargain, the other party gets to sue for breach," he said. However, he pointedly declined to say whether he thought Perez had breached his agreement, saying, "We'll take another look at it."

Perez's attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said Cooley's suggestion that his client might have violated the plea deal is baseless.

"Rafael Perez has not breached a contract. It's not null and void," McKesson said. "Rafael Perez has fully complied, made every scheduled meeting and has been honest and forthright."

The plea agreement, McKesson said, has a provision in which Perez can be prosecuted for perjury in the event it is proven that he has lied.

McKesson said Cooley's concerns about Perez's plea deal are misplaced.

"I would think that Mr. Cooley would want to know about corruption in the Police Department," he said. "I would think that an agreement that results in 100 innocent people being freed from their unjust incarceration should be something that he, in the interest of justice, would see as a positive thing."

Cooley said one of his first acts as district attorney will be to give defense lawyers access to all files that might raise questions about prosecutions involving testimony by Rampart officers. He said 2,000 or more cases might have been tainted by suspect testimony.

Some defense lawyers have complained that Garcetti was slow to open his office's files on Rampart-related cases.

"We'll be very open, very forthright," Cooley promised. "We represent the people. I've said all along, Mr. Garcetti's approach in this area was upside-down."

Cooley will take office Dec. 4, and said he will begin assembling his transition team under Van de Kamp on Monday, after a short vacation with his family.

He spoke at length about his plans in an interview in his hotel suite, surrounded by the detritus of his victory night--champagne bottles, half-full coffee carafes, Cooley lawn signs and a couple of Garcetti signs taken on a capture-the-flag impulse.

Among his first acts, Cooley said, will be issuance of a new policy to enforce California's three-strikes law, under which three-time felons can receive sentences of 25 years to life in prison. He has criticized Garcetti for applying the law even when the third felony is nonviolent and relatively minor. Under his policy, Cooley said, most nonviolent, nonserious third felonies will be handled as second strikes--eligible for double the sentence usually imposed for the crime, but not a 25-to-life term.

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