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Editorial: The next D.A.

From L.A.'s next D.A., prosecution not persecution

Pursuing crooked pols is a winner with voters, but remember, the district attorney is a politician too.

April 10, 2012
  • "The first point of priority when I become district attorney," said D.A. candidate Alan Jackson, "is to enhance the Public Integrity Division because public corruption strikes at the very heart of our democracy."
"The first point of priority when I become district attorney,"… (Los Angeles Times )

Many of the six candidates for Los Angeles County district attorney say they would seek out and prosecute corruption by elected officials, and it's no wonder. The pursuit of allegedly crooked pols is a winner with voters who see one example after another of politicians pushing the ethical envelope.

But as an elected official, the district attorney is a politician too, and any effort he or she makes to crack down on government misconduct — or to let it be — is at least to some degree a political act. To ensure that prosecutions do not become persecutions, voters must probe deeply into the candidates' actions and attitudes. Are they threatening to prosecute politicians because they are truly concerned about municipal corruption, or are they simply pandering to voters and perhaps hoping to use their power to push political rivals out of the way? It's not always easy to tell the difference.

By establishing his Public Integrity Division and the lesser-known Judicial System Integrity Division, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley made it clear that that he took corruption seriously — and he at least to some degree removed himself and his political fortunes from the equation by empowering his lawyers to do their work without checking first on the boss' political agenda.

Even so, prosecutions of officials in small Los Angeles County cities such as South Gate, Bell and Compton do not come without controversy. At a recent candidates forum, Danette Meyers, a prosecutor in the district attorney's office who is running to succeed Cooley, said she would not "forget to go after the sheriff" if the sheriff were a friend of hers, referring to the Bell prosecutions that left out the former police chief, whom Meyers said was a friend of Cooley's. (Cooley was quoted in a Times story as saying "I would charge my mother" if that would serve justice.)

Nor, Meyers said, would she pursue "ticky-tack violations" of the state law requiring public business to be conducted in the open. Isn't it odd, Meyers told The Times separately, that the district attorney's targets generally are Democrats? Cooley, remember, is a Republican.

At the forum, candidate Jackie Lacey, Cooley's chief deputy, rejected Meyers' characterization of the open meeting probes as "ticky tack." Complaints are pursued as they come in, Lacey said.

"The first point of priority when I become district attorney," said Alan Jackson, another prosecutor in the office who is running for Cooley's job, "is to enhance the Public Integrity Division because public corruption strikes at the very heart of our democracy." And it does. But first priority?

And what are voters to make of candidate and Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich's 2009 threat — according to City Council member Jan Perry — to prosecute her if billboard permits were issued to Anschutz Entertainment Group? Was that a legitimate exercise of power or an inappropriate overreach in a political spat? It's hard to beat head-to-head confrontations among politicians for sheer headline power. But county residents need their district attorney to find the proper spot somewhere between the hands-off stance of past administrations and full-scale — and destructive — political warfare.

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