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Los Angeles Elections

Trutanich's career included defending polluters

The candidate for L.A. city attorney has played up his gang work in the district attorney's office, but some of his most notable private work involved companies that ran afoul of environmental laws.

February 26, 2009|Maeve Reston

In the flashy television ad that has served as his calling card to voters, Los Angeles city attorney candidate Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich compressed his 30-year legal career into a narrow sliver: the time he spent prosecuting serious gang crimes.

Not mentioned is the mainstay of Trutanich's work: his expertise in environmental law, developed as a young prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and finessed as a private attorney defending a number of polluters.

Over two decades as a defense lawyer, Trutanich has represented a diverse group of clients -- USC athletes, male dockworkers concerned about reverse discrimination, a former colleague wrongly roughed up by Santa Monica police. But some of his most complex and controversial cases involved companies that ran afoul of environmental laws.

Among the cases singled out by opponents in the March 3 primary: a machine company accused of dumping hazardous waste at Hunters Point Navy Shipyard in San Francisco, a gas station chain owner with hundreds of leaky underground fuel tanks and the owner of an automotive recycling business near the Wilmington Channel who had a mound of auto batteries in his yard and high lead levels in the soil.

One Trutanich rival, Westside City Councilman Jack Weiss, says that clientele should give voters pause.

"The issue is 'Whose side are you on?' " said Weiss, who once served as chairman of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

But Trutanich and his supporters argue that his skills as a defense attorney might be his strongest qualification.

"That role of city attorney is about protecting and defending the city as much as prosecuting people that violate the law. . . . He has that full dimension of experience," said Barry Groveman, who headed the D.A.'s environmental crimes unit in the mid-1980s while Trutanich worked there.

Of the five candidates in the race, Weiss and Trutanich have been the most visible. Weiss has raised the most money, with $1.6 million; Trutanich is a distant second at $729,000. The other three have substantially less.

Trutanich considers his experience as a gang prosecutor a career highlight that is critical to the work he would do at the city attorney's office, where gangs have long been a focus (though the city attorney handles only misdemeanor cases, leaving more serious felonies to the district attorney).

On the ballot he is listed as an environmental attorney, and he says he is proud of his background in environmental law. When accused companies call him, Trutanich says "the first thing I do" is make sure they're operating lawfully. "I'm real comfortable when I put my head down on my pillow at night," he said in an interview late last month. "I don't do anything that my kids would not be proud of."

Trutanich's foray into environmental law was not a career move he planned as a young man. As the son of the superintendent at the StarKist tuna packaging plant on Terminal Island, Trutanich worked on the docks as a teenager. He graduated from USC in 1973, and later earned an MBA there.

While working at StarKist, he began attending night law school at South Bay University College of Law, a Carson school that closed in the late '70s, according to the State Bar of California.

Several years after passing the bar in May 1979, Trutanich joined the L.A. County district attorney's office and took every chance he could to go to trial. He scored a spot in the gang unit and caught the eye of superiors with what they describe as boundless energy, tenacity and an easy manner in the courtroom.

"He's a natural alpha," said John Lynch, a deputy district attorney who supervised Trutanich. "If you gave him a case with a group of people, and you left the room and came back in 20 minutes, there was no question about who was in charge."

When Ira Reiner was elected district attorney in 1984, Trutanich was recruited against his will for a new environmental crimes section that Reiner hoped to make into a premier investigative unit. Trutanich said it was like shifting from flying F-18 jets to flying cargo planes. "I was going a 100 miles an hour with my ass on fire. It was fun," he said. "What more serious cases could you try (than) robberies, murders, kidnappings?"

He struck a deal with his bosses, keeping his murder case against Barry Glenn Williams, the leader of the 89th Street Neighborhood Family Blood gang accused of shooting a 21-year-old to death, and won a death penalty conviction against him in July 1986.

Within the environmental unit, Trutanich and his colleagues employed many of the same techniques used in the gang unit. Trutanich helped organize a weeklong stakeout at a Motel 6 to monitor a trucker hauling hazardous waste who became the first person in California to go to prison for violating the Hazardous Waste Control Act.

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