He was particularly interested in the one conversation that Clark Davis had secretly recorded. Davis had met with Gastelum at a Pasadena restaurant in October 2001 and discussed the transmission-line deal, which was then still before the Otay Water Board. Gastelum, who by then knew about the FBI investigation, complained that he was being hit up for bribes that he would not pay.
Then he turned the conversation to how the two lobbyists could cultivate influence with public officials in San Diego County. Gastelum proposed giving Davis $10,000 annually for five years to make campaign contributions.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Robbery case -- An article in Section A on Oct. 23 about shortcomings in a corruption investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office inaccurately described an unrelated robbery case. The article reported that a deputy district attorney in the corruption probe was reassigned to prosecute a vagrant on 20 counts of robbery. In fact, the case involved two defendants charged with 33 counts of armed robbery, attempted robbery, assault with a gun and false imprisonment by violence.
"What I would do is, I would put, I would put, like, $10,000 aside every year for you to donate money," Gastelum said on the tape.
"So we can go get some friendships," Davis interjected.
"I would put up the money. I would say, 'Clark, here's our budget, man.... I'll put down $10,000.... Let's do it for five years to develop a relationship down there.' "
Davis says he thought Gastelum wanted to use him as a front for political contributions, in violation of state law. Gastelum says that is not what he intended and that he never gave Davis money for the donations.
But Dalton saw a wider significance in the taped chatter. He connected it with a 3-year-old Times article that he called "the Belmont smoking gun."
The newspaper story described how two pro-Belmont school board members, in the midst of a tough 1999 reelection battle, had gotten $10,000 campaign contributions, ostensibly from publishers of bilingual textbooks. The board members received the cashier's checks during breakfast meetings with Gastelum and his longtime friend Hal Mintz, who says he was representing the publishers.
At the time, Gastelum needed the school board to proceed with Belmont so he could earn a $1.2-million management fee.
The Times piece raised questions about whether the contributions had really come from the textbook publishers. The two board members said they had. But the president of one of the firms said he had never authorized such a payment.
In 2002, Dalton dug deeper. He checked campaign-finance records to see where the cashier's checks had originated. He traced them to a mail drop in San Marino registered to Mintz.
Dalton thought he saw a pattern of Gastelum's using intermediaries to make political donations.
"I believe Gastelum was working the same scheme he was planning to work in San Diego with Clark Davis. He is buying the influence of public officials, using illegal campaign contributions," Dalton theorized in a memo.
Dalton was eager to investigate further but, as a prosecutor, could not conduct interviews himself. Doing so could make him a witness in his own case. He needed an investigator to take statements from the school board members, and asked his supervisor to assign one.
The supervisor, veteran prosecutor John Zajec, refused.
Dalton recalls being stunned.
"Art Gastelum is caught giving money to board members. Why can't we interview those that were present?" he complained in a memo to another prosecutor. "Did Gastelum speak at these meetings? What did he say? Was there any influence or attempted influence on Gastelum's part?"
Zajec says those questions were not worth investigating.
"I just didn't think it was going to lead to a felony prosecution, particularly in the context of what I viewed was the central Belmont question: whether there was an environmental catastrophe that was perpetrated on the taxpayers and a cover-up," he said in an interview.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Curtis A. Hazell, Zajec's immediate boss, agrees, saying that, at most, the activity Dalton suspected amounted to "technical campaign violations."
Cooley, however, acknowledges that his office is investigating similar allegations in several current cases, looking for evidence of felony conspiracies to launder campaign money.
Mintz said in recent interviews that textbook companies had made the campaign contributions and that the checks had been traced to his address because he was the publishers' Los Angeles representative.
Gastelum said he had arranged the breakfast meetings as a favor to Mintz. "I had nothing to do with those contributions, other than setting up the meetings," he said.
As the investigation wore on, the relationship between Dalton and his bosses worsened.
Cooley says he lost confidence in Dalton, adding that there was little to show for the wide latitude Dalton had been given.
"He absolutely was incapable of doing what any lawyer who wants to file a case, civil or criminal, should be able to do, which is sit down and write it out," Cooley said in an interview. "What are your theoretical charges? What is your statement of the case?... And list your witnesses and what would your witnesses testify to. He couldn't produce that document."