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Lockyer not tough enough for some

Critics say the attorney general, now running for treasurer, has failed to diligently prosecute corrupt officials. He defends his record.

October 29, 2006|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Energy companies, loggers and automakers have felt the wrath of California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. So have sexual predators and civil rights violators.

But fellow politicians suspected of corruption? Not so much.

During his nearly eight years as the state's top law enforcement authority, Lockyer has prosecuted just a handful of elected officials on corruption charges, the most prominent being a San Bernardino County supervisor.

In cases involving higher-profile officeholders, Lockyer either referred the investigations to another agency or declined to file charges.

A Democrat, Lockyer is now running for treasurer against Republican Claude Parrish, a state Board of Equalization member.

Watchdog groups and others say the half-dozen prosecutions brought by Lockyer reflect a protect-your-own culture among politicians that also marked the performance of his predecessors.

"We were high on Lockyer, and we were very disappointed because we thought he should diverge from this pattern," said Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which promotes corporate and political reform.

"There is a real trepidation to go after a member of the fraternity, even if it is a wayward member you don't agree with," said Court, who praised Lockyer's actions in areas such as corporate crime.

Lockyer and his supporters insist he is tough on corruption.

"When there are complaints or visible corruption issues that need to be investigated, we have never, ever neglected to do that investigative and prosecutorial work," Lockyer said.

The attorney general's chief deputy for legal affairs, Bob Anderson, a 33-year veteran of the office, said Lockyer had not injected politics into decisions on corruption prosecutions.

"I'm satisfied we're doing as much as we can," Anderson said. "A lot of cases come to us and we look at them, and there's nothing there."

But a former deputy attorney general, William Prahl, who retired during Lockyer's first term, called the office's efforts on corruption cases a "joke."

"The tiger doesn't have any teeth," said Prahl, who spent 29 years in the office.

Court's organization and California Common Cause were disappointed that Lockyer did not file criminal charges against former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush and former California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, both of whom resigned amid allegations that they had diverted tax money to political purposes and otherwise abused their offices. Quackenbush and Shelley said they did nothing illegal.

More recently, the attorney general has been criticized for not investigating questionable spending by a state children's commission founded by filmmaker Rob Reiner. Lockyer referred the matter to the Sacramento County district attorney.

He said his office had a conflict because it had provided legal advice to the commission. Lockyer's staff routinely serves as legal counsel to state agencies, but attorney general spokesman Nathan Barankin said that, in the case of Reiner's panel, the advice breached a "wall" between the office's civil and criminal operations.

Court was skeptical. "The standard for criminal prosecution is really high in Lockyer's office, higher than it is under the law," he said.

Common Cause policy advocate Ned Wigglesworth said the attorney general's statements that corruption investigations turned up insufficient evidence can sound like a "convenient out," especially because the office does not disclose the findings in detail.

"The public becomes cynical," Wigglesworth said.

Ann Crigler, chairwoman of USC's Political Science Department, agreed. She said elected prosecutors find it easier to avoid corruption cases in favor of crime-fighting initiatives with no risk of political blow-back.

"It's more about their future ambitions and how they need to seek party support," Crigler said. "There are plenty of other universally agreed-upon cases that will give you a high profile and be less controversial."

Lockyer noted that local district attorneys have handled most criminal cases against elected officials. But the attorney general's office has concurrent jurisdiction, is free to launch its own cases and can make them a statewide priority. The office is called in when a district attorney has a conflict in a prosecution.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission, charged with enforcing civil laws on campaign finances, occasionally refers cases to the attorney general if there are possible criminal violations.

Spokeswoman Whitney Barazoto said the commission makes only a few referrals a year, at most. She said she did not know of any that had resulted in prosecutions in recent years.

In Orange County, Lockyer has been criticized for his handling of investigations targeting Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

The Rackauckas probe resulted in a 2002 Orange County grand jury report that accused him of intervening on behalf of campaign contributors in cases before his office.

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