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Team of Rivals: L.A.'s D.A. office

December 18, 2012|By Patt Morrison
  • At USC's Galen Center, U.S. Atty. for California's Central District Andre Birotte, far left, joins former L.A. D.A.s Steve Cooley, Gil Garcetti, Robert Philibosian and John Van de Kamp at the swearing-in ceremony for new D.A. Jackie Lacey, the county's first female and first minority D.A.
At USC's Galen Center, U.S. Atty. for California's Central… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

I wish I’d put money on this, because right now I’d be treating myself to a new pair of shoes.

I should have bet that the loser in the Los Angeles district attorney’s race would find himself nudged into another position that doesn’t seem as juicy, as prominent, as the one he held before the election.

Why? Because it always happens, always being at least the last four district attorneys, now including the newly elected one, Jackie Lacey.

Last month, she handily defeated another prosecutor, Alan Jackson. This month, she’s reassigned him from trying cases in the major crimes division to a position that’s, well, not.

As my colleague Jack Leonard wrote this week, the new D.A.’s spokeswoman, Jean Guccione, says it’s a "lateral move" and has nothing to do with the election; after all, she said, more than half of the office's managers were reassigned as the new administration changed the guard. It’s “not retaliation.”

Same money, same title, but now overseeing deputy D.A.s prosecuting what Jackson characterized as “garden-variety felony” and misdemeanor cases.

Jackson regards it as a step backward and feels he’s being put out to pasture. “Disappointed,” he says. “Not just for me, but I'm disappointed for what it says about the mission of the district attorney's office."

Perhaps mindful of the D.A.’s office history, Lacey told The Times this month: "I'm not a vindictive person. I'm not a mean person. I don't believe in wasting energy on that kind of thing. If he chooses to remain in the office, we will find an appropriate spot."

And that spot wouldn’t necessarily be the one he was in. "The choice won't be up to him. It will be up to us. I think in this office, you benefit from a variety of assignments."

In point of fact, you could also look at it this way: Jackson got whacked during the election by Lacey for not having enough management experience to run the D.A.’s office. This new assignment could arguably bulk up Jackson’s management chops, although he’s not likely to be looking at it that way.

Forty years ago, after Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi took on his boss, D.A. Joe Busch, and nearly beat him, the incumbents "began to hear footsteps from [others] in the office.” This according to Armand Arabian, the retired state Supreme Court justice who served as an L.A. prosecutor and Superior Court judge.

Skip past D.A. John Van de Kamp, ahead to 1984, when City Atty. Ira Reiner beat incumbent D.A. Robert Philibosian with the support of a rump group of deputy D.A.s.

In 1988, Reiner ran again. And after he won reelection, he sent his up-and-coming chief deputy, Gil Garcetti, to the hinterlands, and exiled his No. 1 election challenger, deputy D.A. and Night Stalker prosecutor Lea D’Agostino, to Van Nuys.

Four years after that, Garcetti beat Reiner for the D.A.’s post, again with the endorsement of a number of his D.A. colleagues.

Again and again it happens, like a weird golden rule: Do unto other D.A.s as was done unto you, or your buddies.

By 1996, prosecutor David Conn, who sent the Menendez brothers to prison, acknowledged that he “wouldn’t mind” having Garcetti’s position one day.

Weeks later, he didn’t get a promotion he said he deserved, and he lost the limelight spot of acting head of major crimes.

That same year, deputy D.A. John Lynch almost beat his boss, Garcetti, for the D.A. post, with the full-throated support of a fellow prosecutor, one Steve Cooley.

And then Cooley was sent to the Gobi Desert of the office: welfare fraud prosecutions. Cooley turned lemons into a citrus industry and earned major news coverage in his new post.

Four years later, Cooley won Garcetti’s spot.

In his turn, Cooley, as D.A., was accused of retaliating against prosecutors who belonged to the union.

Lest you think L.A. is alone in this curious practice, 10 years ago, a couple of Ventura County criminal prosecutors complained that they were dissed -- demoted from their jobs, according to the Civil Service Commission -- and it happened, they said, because they supported the losing candidate in the D.A.’s race rather than the outgoing D.A.’s chosen successor.

And in Orange County, when Tony Rackauckas was elected D.A. in 1999, he reassigned some deputies who had supported him, including the one who had run against him, a man who was the designated successor of the retiring D.A.

It’s as if there’s some secret “to do” list that outgoing D.A.s leave in the desk drawer for the new guy or gal.

A new D.A. understandably wants to make changes -- even one who, like Lacey, was her predecessor’s choice to succeed him. The quandary is, how do you keep them from looking retaliatory, which can damage both office morale and the officeholder’s reputation?

At least it’s not the old Ottoman Empire, where the new sultan routinely offed his potential rivals, who were his own half-brothers. The MO? Strangling with a silken cord. What prosecutor wouldn’t want that juicy piece of evidence to introduce as Exhibit A?

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