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D.A.'s More Bark Than Bite

October 27, 2003

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley can tick off some notable successes in his three years in office -- including aggressive efforts against political corruption in South Gate and Compton -- and he made good a few months ago on his promise to subpoena the records of priests suspected of pedophilia if Cardinal Roger Mahony wouldn't deliver them.

What Cooley campaigned on, however, was big-time public corruption and the failure of his predecessor to aggressively go after it.

Cooley -- a veteran prosecutor who should have been in the know -- declared in his 2000 campaign for office that there was much to be had from investigations of the Rampart police scandal and the $175 million poured into the construction of the new Belmont high school before it was shut down because of the tardy and bungled detection of methane gas under the site.

The Rampart probe ended with little more than a promise to keep a closer eye on police. Belmont simply fizzled, with Cooley himself saying investigators found no prosecutable crimes.

Maybe it wasn't quite that cut and dried. A Times investigation of the Belmont probe by reporters Ralph Frammolino, Nicholas Riccardi and Ted Rohrlich uncovered confidential documents that showed tantalizing leads about possible high-level, high-stakes bribery involving one of Belmont's builders.

The leads extended to questionable doings within the Los Angeles Airport Commission, long a digging ground for large political contributions and a plum assignment for contributors. As it turns out, the Belmont probe was closed down over the strong objections of the deputy district attorney who was following those leads.

If the Belmont probe stood alone as a possible slip-up with possible political pressure involved, Cooley could have the benefit of the doubt. But his own prosecutors also objected to his derailment of a perjury and conspiracy investigation of the powerful Newhall Land & Farming Co. over its alleged destruction of endangered species to make way for housing.

And there's another disturbing pattern in these two stories -- the reassignment of those seen as malcontents within the district attorney's office. When campaigning against then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, Cooley hit him hard as a leader whose troops lived in fear of retribution. However, Cooley shut down his own highly touted environmental crimes prosecution unit after the Newhall case and reassigned its chief to the county law library. Prosecutor Matt Dalton, the investigator in the Belmont case, quit in frustration after he was reassigned to a robbery case against a vagrant.

Small-timers are easy to catch -- the case against the Compton officials, for instance, is built on credit card receipts.

Where an aggressive district attorney is needed, and where Cooley has largely been missing in action, is in going after the big guys who know how to whisper, to talk in circles when a tape might be running, to call a friend who can call a very important friend for support.

Now that others have shown him what he may have missed in the more complicated and potentially politically explosive Belmont case, Cooley says he may be willing to pursue the investigation again. Cooley's office should chase every reasonable lead on corruption. The actions and the words of the tough-talking district attorney must match.

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