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Judge rejects panel's finding on former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley

L.A. County judge rules former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley did not get a fair hearing by the Employee Relations Commission over allegations that he retaliated against officials at the prosecutors' union.

November 27, 2013|By Jack Leonard
  • Former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley did not get a fair hearing over allegations that he retaliated against officials at the prosecutors union, a judge ruled.
Former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley did not get a fair hearing over allegations… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

A Los Angeles judge has thrown out a county commission's finding that former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley retaliated against officials with the county prosecutors' union, concluding that two key commission officials privately mocked Cooley and were biased against him.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin ruled that email exchanges between the county Employee Relations Commission's executive director and a hearing officer showed that Cooley and his office did not get a fair hearing in a case brought by the union before Cooley retired last year.

In the emails, hearing officer Thomas S. Kerrigan described Cooley as "mediocre" and wrote a poem to the executive director entitled "The Ballad of Steve Cooley" days after statewide election returns indicated that Cooley had narrowly lost his 2010 campaign to become attorney general. In the poem, Cooley was told to "hang down [his] head and sob" because he was "stuck in the same job," according to Lavin's decision.

Lavin said in his ruling issued last month that the emails showed that the commission's executive director, Paul Causey, decided union officials deserved to win their case even before the district attorney's office presented any evidence. In the emails, Causey referred to Cooley as "arrogant" and "too big for his britches," Lavin wrote. Before working for the commission, Causey and Kerrigan had worked as partners in the same law practice.

In a later memo to the commission summarizing the case, Causey's account "contained mischaracterizations of the evidence or anti-[district attorney's office] views that could only have been the product of a biased review of the record," Lavin wrote in his decision.

The case stemmed from complaints by officials with the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys that accused Cooley of transferring, reassigning or taking other disciplinary action against prosecutors in retaliation for their union work. Kerrigan, who presided over the case, issued a scathing decision in which he said Cooley's explanations for his actions "were false and clearly pretexts" for conducting a "deliberate and thinly disguised campaign" aimed at destroying the union.

Causey denied any bias and said the emails had been misinterpreted. Kerrigan's negative comments about Cooley were made after all the testimony in the case had been heard and when the hearing officer was meant to form an opinion about witnesses, Causey said. He said he never described Cooley as "arrogant" or "too big for his britches" but quoted others as saying so in an email he sent Kerrigan. Causey said the judge took his comments out of context.

"I didn't do anything wrong," said Causey. He said he resigned from the commission in May following the email controversy.

Kerrigan could not be reached for comment.

Attorney Richard A. Shinee, who represented the union during the case, said most of the emails between Causey and Kerrigan were appropriate but that the judge focused on a few "inappropriate remarks."

"Given the overwhelming evidence of misconduct and anti-union animus on the part of Cooley and his administration, we thought the decision was in error," Shinee said. He said the union has yet to decide whether to appeal.

Brian Hershman, who represented Cooley and the district attorney's office, said his clients believed they would have won the case had they received a fair hearing at the commission. He noted that a federal jury last year rejected claims that Cooley violated the rights of two former leaders of the union when they were transferred to other positions within the district attorney's office.

Hershman said the emails between Causey and Kerrigan showed "extremely egregious conduct … that shocks the conscience."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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