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Cooley retaliated against prosecutors for their union work, hearing officer says

Decision says the D.A. waged a 'deliberate and thinly disguised campaign' aimed at destroying the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys. Lawyer for the county faults the decision and says the D.A.'s office will appeal.

November 12, 2010|By Jack Leonard, Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley waged an illegal anti-union campaign in which he and his staff harassed and unfairly disciplined union officers, a county hearing officer has decided in a labor dispute.

In a sharply worded decision issued Wednesday, Thomas S. Kerrigan found that veteran prosecutors with outstanding evaluations were transferred to less desirable assignments in retaliation for their union work.

The conclusions follow more than a year of legal wrangling at the county Employee Relations Commission between Cooley and the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys.

In testimony earlier this year, Cooley denied any anti-union feelings but said he had a personal dislike of some union officials, particularly the association's former president.

Kerrigan concluded that Cooley's explanations "were false and clearly pretexts" for conducting a "deliberate and thinly disguised campaign" aimed at destroying the union.

"This case is almost anachronistic in its nature with undisguised acts so bold," Kerrigan wrote, "that they are almost without parallel in recently reported cases, continuing acts committed to destroy a labor union and damage the careers of senior deputies."

Kerrigan's findings will go to the commission to determine how to resolve the legal battle. The hearing officer recommended that the commission order the district attorney to rescind illegal transfers and assess any future complaints about transfers involving union members made after 2008.

The hearing officer was particularly critical of Cooley's failure to testify early in the proceedings despite being issued a subpoena.

Attorney Brian Hershman, who has represented the county since April, said scheduling conflicts and other motions caused delays before Cooley ultimately testified.

"I think he testified accurately and honestly about the reasons for his decisions," said Hershman, a partner at the law firm Jones Day.

Hershman said the hearing officer ignored evidence that showed that union activity had nothing to do with the decisions to transfer prosecutors. He said the case ended up involving only one prosecutor complaining about his transfer out of thousands of transfers made during Cooley's decade as district attorney.

The district attorney's office, he said, plans to challenge the decision before the commission.

"I certainly hope that they give it a full analysis," he said.

But the union's attorney, Richard A. Shinee, noted that the hearing officer cited several other transfers and found that the district attorney's violations were "wider spread" than the prosecutors named in the case.

"This is a sweeping indictment of the district attorney's illegal conduct," Shinee said. "It is a reflection of anti-union animus on steroids."

The unfair labor practice claim centered on Cooley's 2008 transfer of Deputy Dist. Atty. Marc Debbaudt, the union's vice president.

Debbaudt was sent from handling adult felony cases in Pasadena to working on juvenile matters in Pomona and then Sylmar. The new assignment is one usually given to less experienced attorneys than Debbaudt, who has worked for the office since 1986.

Cooley argued that Debbaudt was transferred because of his outspoken criticism of the office's policy on handling three-strikes cases. In juvenile court, Debbaudt would not have to deal with such cases.

But Kerrigan concluded that the transfer was in retaliation for his union activity.

"I'm jubilant. I feel vindicated," Debbaudt said Thursday. "Mr. Kerrigan made it very clear that a lot of people have been mistreated."

Kerrigan's decision marks the second time in less than a year that Cooley and his management have been criticized over the treatment of prosecutors who belong to the union.

In March, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against Cooley and other county officials, saying evidence established retaliation against union members that "is both striking and rampant."

Tensions between Cooley and some union leaders have simmered for years. In 2008, Steve Ipsen, then the association's president, ran unsuccessfully for election against Cooley.

Around the same time, the county certified the association as a full-fledged union, allowing it to represent rank-and-file prosecutors in contract negotiations with the county. Union officials say about 270 of the office's roughly 1,000 prosecutors are dues-paying members.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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