One charity in Los Angeles has had a powerful ally to squeeze contributions from prospective donors.
That charity is the District Attorney Crime Prevention Foundation, started by Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.
From 1994 to 1998, according to foundation and court records, deputy district attorneys under Garcetti negotiated with 51 defendants who made contributions to the foundation as a condition of settling their criminal and, in a few instances, civil cases before trials.
Those contributions netted the foundation $506,000--or about two-thirds of all of the money it has ever raised. Garcetti, an elected official, benefited in some ways. For example, the foundation featured him in an educational film paid for with the funds.
Some of the same deputy district attorneys who negotiated contributions to the foundation as parts of plea bargains settled another nine cases by getting defendants to contribute $500,000 to the district attorney's office itself. According to their immediate superior, they did so to show Garcetti that it made financial sense to keep them in their specialized jobs. Those contributions were negotiated in 1993 and 1994, at a time when Los Angeles County government and the district attorney's office were struggling financially and Garcetti said he might have to lay off or transfer prosecutors from specialized functions to work on street crime.
Experts in criminal sentencing criticized such practices because they appear to have involved prosecutors' mixing self-interest with the public interest in deciding how cases should be settled.
Garcetti, who is up for reelection in November, refused to comment.
"The danger here is that you create the prospect of a kind of legalized extortion," said Columbia University law professor John C. Coffee Jr., who helped draft the American Bar Assn. standards on sentencing alternatives.
Coffee said he was reminded of a police officer who stops a motorist for speeding, then declares: " 'Here is a tin can for the L.A. police welfare fund. How would you like to make a contribution?' It begins to suggest that you better make that contribution or you're running the chance of having those charges enhanced."
The defendants, all of whom were accused of violating anti-pollution laws, could have refused to agree to the plea bargains calling for the contributions, but at some risk. They might have had to stand trial, pay more in fines or, in some cases, be sent to jail.
The risks remained abstract, however, since no defendant objected to making contributions, either to the district attorney's office or to its foundation, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors involved in making the deals said they typically negotiated a dollar amount for the overall settlement first, then negotiated which portions would go to the public treasury, which to harmed parties, and which to the district attorney's office or the District Attorney Crime Prevention Foundation. In many cases, other charities also got shares.
Some defendants felt it was none of their business where the money went. "It was the responsibility of McDonnell Douglas to pay, but it wasn't up to us to decide where we should pay," said spokesman John Thom, referring to settlement of a civil suit over a jet fuel spill that sent $50,000 to the district attorney foundation. "That was up to the prosecutor's side."
Some defendants, however, specified charities they wanted included and prosecutors, such as former Deputy Dist. Atty. Anthony Patchett, said they included those charities as long as they were "looking to help the environment."
Defendants Would Ask to Make Contributions
Another prosecutor who negotiated some of the contributions, Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert S. Miller, said that a defendant's refusal to accept a deal calling for a donation to the district attorney's foundation would not have been "a deal breaker." A dispute over the settlement's "total amount is going to be a deal breaker," he said.
Prosecutors who negotiated many of the settlements said that the opportunity to make some sort of charitable contribution became sought after by defense attorneys, a half-dozen of whom were contacted for comment but did not return calls.
Corporate defendants in particular embraced the opportunity to pay a portion of their penalties in the form of charitable contributions because they found it less embarrassing than being ordered to pay bigger fines, prosecutors said. They may have also concluded there were tax advantages.
Prosecutors said they believed--and discussed the possibility with defense attorneys--that defendants could deduct contributions from their income taxes. That was incorrect. The Internal Revenue Service ruled in 1979 that charitable contributions made to avoid fines were not deductible.
Judges approved the contributions in every case. Larry P. Fidler, the supervising judge for criminal matters in Los Angeles Superior Court, declined interview requests.