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Lawyer Links Rebuke of D.A. With Firing

November 20, 2003|Ralph Frammolino and Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writers

A former prosecutor who publicly criticized Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley says he was fired from his new job at a leading corporate law firm because its partners wanted to curry favor with the district attorney on behalf of a wealthy client.

The firm -- Howrey Simon Arnold & White -- represents Los Angeles developer Alan Casden, whose company is under investigation by the district attorney's office for possible violations of campaign finance laws.

Former Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Dalton said Howrey Simon had fired him because he had been quoted in an Oct. 23 Times article criticizing Cooley and the D.A.'s top assistants for their conduct in an unrelated investigation.

In the article, Dalton voiced outrage at the office's failure to pursue allegations that Art M. Gastelum, a prominent lobbyist and businessman, had bribed public officials and prosecutors. The allegations emerged during the district attorney's investigation into the financing and construction of the unfinished Belmont Learning Center.

Gastelum was not charged and has denied any wrongdoing.

Dalton resigned from the D.A.'s office in February and joined the Howrey Simon firm a few weeks before the Times article was published.

Dalton said that, after the story appeared, Howrey Simon supervisors expressed concern that his comments would make it difficult to deal with Cooley's office on behalf of Casden, an apartment developer whose net worth has been estimated at $800 million.

"They were trying to appease Cooley. There's no question about it in my mind," Dalton said.

Thomas J. Nolan, a managing partner at Howrey Simon, said in a statement that Dalton's account of his dismissal was "materially not correct." The statement said Dalton, 40, had been let go because of the "quality of his work" and unspecified concerns about his "past conduct."

Nolan declined to elaborate.

Cooley said through a spokeswoman that he did not know Dalton had gone to work for Howrey Simon and had had nothing to do with the dismissal.

Responding to a call placed to Casden, Andrew J. Starrels, vice president and general counsel for Casden Properties, said he had no comment.

The Times article described how Cooley's office had handled corruption allegations that surfaced during its investigation into the Belmont project.

The high school, intended to alleviate classroom crowding near downtown Los Angeles, was built atop a former oil field. School officials abandoned the project in 1999 after high concentrations of underground methane were detected. By then, $180 million had been spent. The unfinished school became an eyesore and a symbol of governmental waste.

Gastelum was a construction partner in the project. Dalton, a member of the D.A.'s Belmont task force, was assigned to investigate him.

The Times article quoted confidential memos in which Dalton complained about his supervisors' lack of interest in pursuing leads about Gastelum, and in which he pleaded for more time to complete his investigation.

The story also quoted comments that Dalton had made in an interview, responding to Cooley's criticism of his performance on the task force. Cooley had said that Dalton was incapable of articulating a criminal case against Gastelum. Dalton said Cooley had been "wrong" to want evidence of a provable case when his investigation hadn't been completed.

Dalton said he had warned Howrey Simon that he would be quoted in the article. He said he had been asked to meet with Nolan the morning it was published. Nolan "expressed concern about the Casden case and whether it was going to have a negative effect on that," Dalton said.

Dalton said Nolan had indicated that he would be seeing Cooley that evening. Both men were honored at a reception for California's 100 most influential attorneys, as selected by the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Cooley, said the district attorney barely knows Nolan and did not recall speaking with him at the reception.

Had Cooley been asked about that day's Times article, Gibbons said, "he probably would have said it was a terrible story."

Dalton said that about noon the next day, he had been summoned to the office of Stephen Miller, a Howrey Simon lawyer, and informed that he was being fired, effective Dec. 1.

"He said that Nolan ran into Cooley last night, Cooley approached him and brought up the article, and Cooley appeared bruised," Dalton said, and that because of "the negative effect it was going to have on the case -- the Casden case -- they were going to terminate me."

The former prosecutor's father, Douglas Dalton, a prominent defense attorney now retired, said Miller, a longtime friend, had called him the same day to explain that his son was being dismissed.

The senior Dalton said Miller had told him that Nolan had talked to Cooley at the previous night's reception, and that "Cooley brought up this article and he said he felt bad about it."

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