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Judge rebukes Cooley, backs LAPD reporting

August 23, 2008|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge has cleared the way for the Los Angeles Police Department to impose strict financial disclosure requirements on hundreds of specialized officers, sternly criticizing the police union and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley for opposing the measure.

In a 26-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess said his years of experience on the bench and as a former prosecutor have led him to conclude that "having a financial baseline is an essential starting point in an investigation into officers who appear to be living beyond their means or are otherwise engaged in corrupt conduct."

He chided the Los Angeles Police Protective League for threatening that the hundreds of affected anti-gang and narcotics officers would seek transfers from their units if they were forced to submit to the disclosure requirements.

"It would be difficult . . . to commend the LAPPL for its commitment to the public interest," Feess wrote. He said it "would be inequitable to reward them for their conduct" by granting their request for a temporary restraining order.

Feess also went out of his way to criticize Cooley, who testified at City Council hearings on behalf of the union earlier this year. The judge said that he was "unimpressed" with the district attorney's "counterintuitive view."

Cooley, in a statement released Friday, said he had read Feess' ruling and considered the "matter of great import and worthy of an appeal."

The judge's ruling was signed Thursday but obtained by union and city officials Friday.

At issue is the final piece of a broad reform campaign that began after the Rampart corruption scandal and has kept the department under federal oversight since 2000.

The financial disclosure requirement for officers who frequently confiscate cash, drugs and other contraband has been one of the most contentious sticking points of a wide-ranging federal consent decree. It was meant to be a tool for supervisors trying to identify rogue officers, and union and city officials tried for years to strike a compromise between officers' privacy rights and the need to satisfy the decree.

Late last year, as political and internal LAPD pressure mounted to get out from under the decree, the civilian Police Commission, which oversees the department, moved ahead, approving a stringent disclosure plan. The Police Protective League promptly filed a lawsuit against the plan and asked Feess, who oversees the consent decree, to issue an injunction against the department until the suit was settled.

In his ruling, Feess decisively shot the union down, saying that it had failed to prove that it stood a good chance of winning in court and that it was in the public's interest to block the plan.

League President Tim Sands said the union would file an appeal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and expressed disappointment at the nature and sharp tenor of the ruling. "Judge Feess' response to our petition . . . is astonishing," Sands said in a statement. "We are very disappointed that he did not give us an objective reading on any of the facts we presented, but continued to present arguments that are not factually substantiated and are internally contradictory."

Sands also went after Feess for the slap at Cooley, calling the judge's decision to discount Cooley's experience on the matter "a specious argument."

Under the terms of the policy, about 600 officers would be required to disclose to department officials any outside income, real estate, stocks, other assets and debts every two years. They would also have to reveal the size of their bank accounts and include any holdings they share with family members or business partners. Officers already assigned to the units would be granted a two-year grace period before they have to complete the records.

Sands and other union officials have argued that such requirements are a severe invasion of privacy and would expose information about officers to identity thieves and defense attorneys in lawsuits against the officers. They also said the disclosures would do little to identify or discourage corrupt officers. Feess rejected the arguments, taking the union to task for not offering a less-invasive plan.

Police Chief William J. Bratton has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the plan in the past but said he views it as a necessity. In an interview Friday, he said that Feess' decision "was not unexpected" and that the department would begin the disclosures immediately. He dismissed the union's warnings that the plan would result in the mass exodus of officers. Every officer in the units has been briefed on the plan, Bratton said, and the department has seen no slowdown in the rate of applications for the assignments, he said.

"There has been an awful lot of hot air floating about on this issue," Bratton said, referring to the union's claims. "There is not going to be any wholesale transfers. . . . The incentives to be in these units far outweigh any perceived" issues.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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