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L.A. County Prosecutors Fight Over Newhall Case

One says D.A. wouldn't 'take on' the developer in a rare-plant case. Cooley denies charge.

January 27, 2003|Nicholas Riccardi and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

Prosecutors in the district attorney's office are trading unusually public charges of recklessness and unprofessional conduct over the way Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and his top deputy narrowed an investigation into alleged environmental crimes by one of Los Angeles County's largest land developers.

At the center of the dispute is Newhall Land & Farming Co., which wants to build more than 20,000 homes on ranchland in the northern part of the county.

Until last April, Deputy Dist. Atty. Diana Callaghan was investigating allegations that Newhall had tried to hide the widespread presence of an endangered plant on the land slated for development. The presence of the plant could slow plans to develop parts of the ranch and substantially increase the company's costs. The company denies that its actions violated the law.

When Callaghan and her supervisor proposed searching the developer's offices as part of a perjury and conspiracy investigation into the company's actions, the case was taken from them by Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Curt Livesay. He called the proposal legally flawed and instead, without telling the environmental prosecutors, set in motion a more limited search.

Since then, prosecutors have filed a misdemeanor charge against Newhall. According to a source familiar with the case, prosecutors are discussing settling the matter with the developer.

Callaghan was transferred to a job she objected to after The Times inquired about the case. She and the head of the environmental crimes unit, Richard Sullivan, are skeptical of their superiors' motives.

"I don't think the D.A. was willing to take on a company as big as Newhall," Callaghan said in an interview.

Top officials in the district attorney's office heatedly deny that.

"Fear of Newhall has not in any way, shape or form influenced the decisions we've made in pursuing a course of action," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Janet Moore, who is now directing the investigation.

Cooley and his top aides say the approach proposed by Callaghan and Sullivan was deeply flawed. Their proposal would have been "reckless and unethical," Cooley said.

Top district attorney's officials say the actions proposed by Callaghan and Sullivan could have exposed investigative information that prosecutors had promised to keep confidential. Their own actions, they say, were guided by the law and a desire to save the endangered plant, the San Fernando Valley spineflower.

Cooley added that he doubts that perjury charges against Newhall "would have withstood scrutiny." But he said that his prosecutors will decide whether additional charges will be filed and that the investigation is continuing.

Newhall, a publicly traded development company, plans to build 21,600 homes along the Santa Clara River at the northwestern edge of Los Angeles County. County supervisors approved the project in early 1999. After a lawsuit, a judge ordered the developer to rewrite key environmental documents, stalling the project. Supervisors are scheduled to vote on those new documents in March.

Newhall is a major donor to county and state officials. Since 2000, it has contributed $248,000 to state and local political campaigns, including $10,000 to the reelection of Democrat Gov. Gray Davis.

Cooley, a Republican, received $500 from the firm for his campaign in 2000. His highest-profile supporter in that race, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area that includes Newhall Ranch, has received more than $70,000 from the firm over the years.

Livesay said he made his decisions in consultation with other prosecutors -- including the author of the office's search-warrant manual -- with no eye toward external pressures.

"I don't know Newhall. I don't know anybody up there," he said. "It's ludicrous to think that I would make any decision based on some defendant's status in the community."

The foot-tall San Fernando Valley spineflower unfurls its dime-size blooms for only about six weeks annually, but it has disrupted two of the region's highest-profile developments.

Long believed extinct, the plant was found on the proposed Ahmanson Ranch development near Calabasas in 1999. The following year, Newhall Land & Farming reported the discovery of one small stand of the plants on the Newhall Ranch.

When the judge delayed the development, Newhall stopped searching for spineflowers. The company argued that, even though there probably were other flowers on its property, it could locate them when it was closer to building. In April 2001, the company filed environmental documents citing only the original find of spineflowers.

Environmentalists contended that there must be more flowers on the property, but the developer replied in papers filed in October 2001 that the "known" location of the plants was the single stand disclosed earlier, according to records.

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