Indictments, Probes Raise Questions Of Corruption in L.A. Civic Affairs

Staff Reporter

One, one, eight.

That's the tally of convictions and guilty pleas logged in the last three years through the public integrity division established by District Attorney Steve Cooley following his election three years ago.

With the indictments of an executive at Casden Properties LLC and officers of 13 of the real estate company's subcontractors on charges of making illegal campaign contributions, next year's total could climb.

But does that mean L.A. has become more corrupt?

"An indictment is a big deal," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University at Fullerton. "You're not saying they just didn't understand the rules or made a mistake or didn't report correctly or got their filings in late. This suggests they were purposely conducting a scheme to avoid the law."

Within L.A.'s legal and political circles, few are willing to say if corruption was on the rise. But there was an acknowledgement of stepped up efforts by a number of government agencies.

From January through October 2003, the district attorney's office received 254 complaints and filed 17 cases. Eight of those cases earned convictions.

"Prior to Mr. Cooley coming in, these cases took a back seat," said David Demerjian, head deputy district attorney for the public integrity division. "Everybody was more interested in doing police cases."

But it was last month's indictments that gained particular attention, given the principals involved. Cooley has said publicly that Alan Casden, the principal of Casden Properties, is a target of the investigation that involves contributions to the campaigns of L.A. City Councilmembers Jack Weiss and Wendy Gruel, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and 2001 mayoral candidate and former state Controller Kathleen Connell.

While the timing of the indictments has been questioned in some circles, given that Cooley is up for reelection next year, Demerjian denied any political motivations and noted that the investigations have been ongoing for a year.

Meanwhile, a more recent inquiry by the district attorney's office has focused on how airport contracts are awarded by the Los Angeles Airport Commission, which is also the subject of investigation by the City Ethics Commission. The Business Journal first reported the D.A. inquiry last week.

The D.A.'s office historically has not led the charge against political corruption. Federal prosecutors were behind the investigation that led to the indictment in 2001 of another former city councilman, Richard Alatorre, who pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges. At the time, the case was considered one of the largest corruption investigations brought by federal prosecutors.

Public corruption cases are often better suited to the U.S. Attorney than local prosecutors, said one law enforcement official, who pointed to resources such as the use of informants, wiretaps and subpoenas for large quantities of documents needed to mount a successful case.

And because few public corruption cases end in indictments, they can be politically risky for local prosecutors.

Cooley has tried to increase his odds of success by throwing more resources at the effort. Eight attorneys and nine investigators, Demerjian said, staff the public integrity division. He said previous administrations had allotted a single prosecutor to such cases.

But the district attorney has also been criticized recently for not following up on leads in some investigations, notably one involving lobbyist Art Gastelum, whose involvement in the Belmont Learning Complex raised suspicion of federal officials. The case was dropped earlier this year but later renewed, according to Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.

"Not too long ago the D.A. was heavily criticized for not pursuing leads in a case," said Sonenshein. "Now, the D.A. is up for re-election in March. It doesn't mean these aren't solid cases, but the timing can be an influence."

Cooley's focus has been aided by increased enforcement by the Ethics Commission, which is looking into recent fundraisers held by commissioners for elected officials.

In September, the Ethics Commission fined L.A. Mayor James Hahn $53,500 for violations of excess contribution rules during his 2001 campaign. Last year, it fined former L.A. City Councilman Nate Holden $6,500 for similar violations.

While fines are often effective in curbing abuses, the Ethics Commission has increasingly worked side-by-side with the district attorney's office and federal prosecutors, said Deena Ghaly, director of enforcement and legal affairs for the Ethics Commission. She said her office routinely meets with prosecutors in the public integrity division.

Even in the most recent round of indictments, which Cooley has said were part of a wider investigation into illegal campaign funding, prosecutors relied on the Ethics Commission's expertise in campaign money laundering, Demerjian said.

Under Garcetti, district attorney from 1992 to 2000, the biggest political corruption case involved the 1995 indictment of former City Councilman Arthur Snyder, who left office in 1985 on charges he had a role in seeking $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

Snyder, his wife, his law partner and four others were indicted after a three-year investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the L.A. City Ethics Commission.

Prosecutors charged that after he left office, Snyder engineered a money-laundering scheme through a lobbying client to increase political donations to city officials favoring a downtown development project called Mangrove Estates. The charges were dismissed on appeal.

Garcetti, now president of the Ethics Commission, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

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