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County prosecutors investigate robocalls in district attorney campaign

Days before the June 2008 election, voters got a barrage of phone messages allegedly targeting Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. Who paid for the calls was not disclosed, a violation of state election law.

July 27, 2009|Jack Leonard

Los Angeles County prosecutors have launched a grand jury probe into who was behind a barrage of recorded phone messages they believe were aimed at undermining voter support for the incumbent during last year's campaign for district attorney.

The investigation has raised allegations that a dirty-tricks campaign targeted Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in the final days before he won a historic third term. But one of Cooley's opponents has questioned how prosecutors can conduct an independent investigation involving their boss and described the probe as part of a political witch hunt.

Prosecutors said the calls violated state election law by failing to disclose who paid for the phone messages.

On the surface, the recorded messages appeared to come from Cooley's campaign. They urged Republican voters to back the incumbent district attorney and repeatedly mentioned that Cooley is a registered Republican.

But Cooley's campaign manager, John Thomas, said he knew nothing about the calls until he heard complaints from registered Democrats who received the messages and were angry that Cooley would make party politics an issue in a race that is supposed to be nonpartisan.

Thomas said the calls were designed to hurt his client by emphasizing that Cooley is a registered Republican in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.

"It was a dirty trick," Thomas said. "It was a failed attempt to distort the election."

On Thursday, the county's criminal grand jury heard testimony from Conrad J. Braun, a convicted felon and the founder of a San Diego business that sends recorded phone messages, so-called robocalls. A grand jury subpoena that Braun posted on one of his Web sites seeks records from his work for one of Cooley's rivals, private attorney Albert Robles.

In an interview before his testimony, Braun, who served time in federal prison for fraud in the 1990s and was convicted of blackmail four years ago in Kansas, told The Times that he sent out more than a million robocalls for Robles, a registered Democrat. He also said he conducted a phone poll for Robles that found that Democrats were more likely to vote against Cooley after learning he is a registered Republican.

Nevertheless, Braun insisted that Robles had nothing to do with the calls being investigated. He said he sent out those calls in response to an e-mail from someone he believed was a Cooley supporter. Braun said he did not recall speaking to the client but received $2,800 in cash via courier in return for delivering the calls.

"It's unusual," Braun said. "Most people don't pay me that way."

Robles was running for district attorney while facing misdemeanor charges filed by the district attorney's office for allegedly sending anonymous mailers during an earlier water board election. A jury acquitted him in October.

Robles denied any involvement in sending the Cooley robocalls. He contended that the probe was launched in retaliation for his long-standing criticism of Cooley.

"It's absolutely clear that Mr. Cooley is out to settle a personal score against one of his most vocal political opponents," Robles said.

Cooley said he has recused himself from the investigation. Robles said, however, that Cooley has not taken the same step he did two years ago when he recused his entire office from investigating allegations of misconduct against former Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo because Delgadillo was considering an attempt to unseat Cooley.

Gregory Ogden, a professor of law at Pepperdine University, said Cooley had probably done enough to avoid a legal conflict.

"Having the D.A. just recuse himself, I think that's probably OK," Ogden said.

Head Deputy Dist. Atty. David Demerjian, who runs the office's public integrity division, said the robocall investigation is in its early stages.

"We don't have a named target at this point," Demerjian said. He declined to talk about the grand jury's role, citing state law that makes such proceedings secret.

But Demerjian said prosecutors are also interested in whether the person who paid for the calls disclosed the purchase on campaign finance records, as the law requires. Any possible charges would be misdemeanors, he said.

The calls were made within days of last year's primary election. The message begins with a male voice addressing "fellow Republicans" and then repeatedly referring to Cooley as a Republican, according to a recording that Braun played for The Times.

"Unfortunately, many Democrats have learned that Steve Cooley is a Republican," the voice said. "We cannot retain the highest seat in the county system if Republicans don't vote on June 3."

Cooley won the election with about 65% of the vote. Robles received nearly 20% and Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Ipsen trailed with nearly 16%.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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