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Cooley leaves legacy of fighting corruption, increasing DNA use

During the district attorney's 12 years in the office, he left his mark on California law enforcement. 'He steered a very middle and fair course,' a predecessor says.

December 08, 2012|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Steve Cooley looks at caricatures of himself that were framed by his staff while his office is packed up around him last month.
Steve Cooley looks at caricatures of himself that were framed by his staff… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

He waged an insurgent campaign against his boss to become Los Angeles County district attorney, promising to act as a prosecutor not a politician.

Twelve years later, Steve Cooley retired last week as one of the county's most entrenched political fixtures, having served a historic tenure as top prosecutor, reshaped the most powerful office in the local criminal justice system and left his mark on California law enforcement.

Cooley is widely credited with expanding the way law enforcement uses DNA and with making the fight against local public corruption a priority. His efforts to soften California's tough three-strikes sentencing law came to fruition less than a month before he left office when voters in November overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure that scales back the law.

"He steered a very middle and fair course," former Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp told reporters before Cooley's successor, Jackie Lacey, was sworn in earlier in the week. "He leaves a great legacy for this office."

But his tenure was hardly free of criticism or problems.

Cooley failed two years ago in a bid to become state attorney general, losing narrowly as the Republican nominee to Democrat Kamala D. Harris, who comfortably won in Cooley's home county. He has been dogged by accusations that he lacked the nerve to prosecute the toughest cases. And he waged an ugly battle with the union that represents line-level prosecutors, which accused him of retaliating against its officers.

As he steps off the public stage, Cooley insists he cannot think of anything he would have done differently.

"I have no regrets. My motives were pure," he said in a recent interview before he left office. "This has probably been the greatest run in anyone's memory."

Cooley, 65, who joined the district attorney's office straight out of law school in 1973, rattled off a long list of accomplishments but said a few stood out.

Among them was the work of his Public Integrity Division. In October, the division charged one of its most high-profile targets, county Assessor John Noguez, with taking bribes to illegally reduce property taxes for the clients of a political supporter. A year earlier, the unit hit eight Bell officials with a litany of corruption charges.

The office also spearheaded efforts to fight violent crime through the increased use of DNA.

Cooley signed the ballot argument in favor of a 2004 initiative that expanded the state's DNA databank to include anyone arrested for a felony. And he urged the state to embrace a controversial method of searching the databank for partial matches that would identify relatives of crime suspects. In 2010, the method helped investigators identify Lonnie Franklin Jr. as the "Grim Sleeper" serial killer, now linked to the slayings of more than a dozen women.

One of Cooley's first actions in office was to introduce a policy for prosecutors generally not to seek life sentences for repeat offenders under the three-strikes law unless the latest offense was a serious or violent crime.

His efforts to amend the law led him to butt heads with other district attorneys, but the state's prosecutors must now follow a law modeled on his approach thanks to the passage of Proposition 36, which his office helped write.

Donna McClay, president of the union that represents deputy district attorneys, said the public has more trust in the office today than 12 years ago, and she credited Cooley with improving the diversity of its employees. More than 36% of the office's prosecutors are nonwhite compared with 28% in late 2000. Nearly 53% are women. "That's a positive thing," she said.

But she said many prosecutors are disappointed that Cooley did not do more to make good on a campaign promise to improve their salaries and benefits. Cooley did, however, receive a 23% raise himself in 2008. He retired making more than $308,000 and will continue to receive about that sum as his annual pension.

Cooley spent his first week of retirement at a defendant's table in federal court scribbling notes on a legal pad during a civil trial in which two former union presidents allege that he retaliated against them with punitive transfers and dead-end assignments. Cooley denies the claim.

In his last few days, he upset some in the office when he announced a final round of promotions for 19 mid-level prosecutors. Among those chosen from a top group of 152 prosecutors was his daughter, Shannon, who was hired in April 2009 and has less time in the office than all but two others of those promoted.

Cooley defended his decision, saying it was based on merit. His daughter earned perfect scores on the office's written test and from her supervisor. The supervisor, Head Deputy Dist. Atty. John Zajec, called her "dedicated, conscientious, hardworking" and among the most outstanding young prosecutors. She recently won a conviction in a difficult drunk-driving murder trial, he said.

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