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City atty., D.A. wage heated turf war

Cooley says that Delgadillo, a potential opponent in '08, keeps key cases for himself.

June 14, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

The top two prosecutors in Los Angeles squared off Wednesday in an unusually nasty dispute that could signal political battles to come if -- as expected -- they run for the same office in 2008.

The clash began with a series of letters in which Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley accused City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo of filing lesser charges against criminal suspects without giving him a chance to consider tougher penalties.

Cooley cited eight cases that Delgadillo pressed as misdemeanors, punished by up to a year in county jail. State law gives district attorneys the authority to file felony charges -- which carry greater punishment and possible state prison time. The lesser counts let Delgadillo retain jurisdiction. And in some of the cases he held news conferences touting the prosecutions.

Filing cases without submitting them to the district attorney could be in violation of state law, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. John K. Spillane warned in one letter he wrote on Cooley's behalf, and "may endanger public safety" by letting serious criminals face lighter sentences. The letters are public documents and were released at the request of The Times.

On Wednesday, Cooley went a step further: County prosecutors filed court papers to take over a case Delgadillo brought against a former waitress at Hamburger Hamlet accused of bilking patrons out of about $16,000 through unauthorized credit card charges.

Neither Cooley nor Delgadillo would comment directly, choosing instead to let aides do the talking.

A spokesman for Delgadillo accused Cooley of giving many small cases short shrift, either by allowing suspects to plead to a misdemeanor or refusing to prosecute at all.

"Contrary to the suggestion by Mr. Cooley, it's actually the district attorney's office that endangers public safety by not promptly filing and aggressively pursuing these smaller cases," said Jeff Isaacs, chief of the criminal and special litigation branch of Delgadillo's office.

One case Cooley cited was Delgadillo's filing of a misdemeanor charge against an airport security screener who allegedly stole a $100,000 watch from the luggage of heiress Paris Hilton.

In another case involving five people who allegedly stole $150,000, Cooley's office bluntly told Delgadillo in a letter Friday to back off from any plans to file misdemeanor charges.

"This office has reviewed the case and determined that felony charges are appropriate," the letter said. "Therefore, you are asked to direct your filing personnel to desist from filing misdemeanor counts which would allow the defendants involved to avoid punishment commensurate with their felonious activities."

Some legal observers said Wednesday they were not surprised by the dispute.

"It sounds like there is a natural tension there" between prosecutors serving overlapping jurisdictions, said Karen Smith, a professor at Southwestern Law School.

That the two politicians may face each other in an upcoming election only makes things worse, she said.

Delgadillo is weighing a possible challenge to Cooley in next year's voting but has not announced a decision.

"In an area where there is a competitor, the district attorney may want to have an opportunity to handle what are high-profile cases or put a spotlight on the fact that he feels someone has stepped over the line and is a poacher in his view," Smith said.

Yet, such has not necessarily been the way of past Los Angeles politics. Former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who was L.A. County's district attorney from 1975 to 1983, said he does not recall similar disputes with the city attorney during his tenure.

"I don't remember any tension in that arena. A decent relationship would be that he would chat with Rocky and work this out without having to write a letter," Van de Kamp said.

It was the case involving Hilton's watch that set the stage for the prosecutors' conflict. In March, Delgadillo held a widely covered news conference at Los Angeles International Airport to announce that he was charging eight security screeners with stealing from luggage.

Victims in the cases included hotel heiress Hilton and rhythm and blues singer Keyshia Cole.

In filing the cases, Delgadillo announced formation of a task force with federal agencies to prevent airport crime and speed investigations and prosecutions.

"The good news is that crime at the airport is down," Delgadillo said at the time. "The bad news is that crime has been continuing. We can ... [and] must do better."

One of the screeners was charged with taking a $100,000 limited edition watch from Hilton's bag the previous May, but reportedly returned it after another employee told a supervisor. Another was accused of stealing a $7,000 Rolex watch that singer Cole had left at a security checkpoint in July 2005.

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