Dual Inquiries Set Federal, Local Investigators at Odds

Staff Reporter

Xandra Kayden, a senior fellow at UCLA's School of Public Policy, said she wasn't surprised to be contacted last month by the L.A. County District Attorney's Office, which is investigating whether contracts have been let based on political contributions.

What did surprise her were the questions she said were asked by the young investigator during a 45-minute interview at her home.

"She wanted me to give them some leads," she said. "I'm serious. She was looking for people who would talk to her."

With both the District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office conducting similar probes, investigators have been casting a wide net as they gather evidence and not all those efforts have been in concert.

What is shaping up, said those familiar with public corruption investigations, is a classic turf battle between local and federal investigators in the race to bring indictments in a wide-reaching and complex case.

By some measures, the District Attorney's Office appears to be ahead, having begun issuing subpoenas as early as January. The first subpoenas of individuals issued by federal prosecutors came last week.

But federal prosecutors have a competitive advantage because they try more public corruption cases.

"It sounds like it's a turf battle," said Brad Lewis, a partner at Fenwick & West LLP and former federal prosecutor of public corruption cases in Sacramento. "And L.A. has a history of those turf battles between the state and federal prosecutors. The DA may start the case, and then the L.A. U.S. Attorney's Office comes in. They tend to be aggressive down there."

Political considerations

District Attorney Steve Cooley, elected in 2000 and re-elected earlier this year, has made public corruption a focus, stepping into an arena that traditionally has been the forte of federal prosecutors.

District Attorneys in L.A. have largely focused on the slam-dunk cases of murders and robberies cases that rely on police investigations for evidence.

Spokespersons for both the U.S. Attorney and District Attorney declined comment.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office will do something painstakingly thorough and comprehensive, and the DA will be a bull in a china shop," said a white-collar criminal defense attorney, who is also a former federal prosecutor.

Another defense attorney, whose client is involved in both investigations, said deputy district attorneys are less experienced in using a grand jury, questioning witnesses, analyzing contracts and applying rules of immunity. "It's like the Lakers playing a mediocre college basketball team," he said.

The District Attorney's Office has typically worked with the Ethics Commission on investigations involving campaign finance, although the Ethics Commission could not confirm whether it is working with investigators in the current case.

One source familiar with the investigation said Cooley's office has several deputies assigned to the probe. Cooley may also be using the recent airport audit provided by City Controller Laura Chick and information provided through subpoenas of individuals as a guide.

Federal prosecutors have issued subpoenas to far fewer individuals. The only names that have come to light so far are Larry Keller, executive director of the harbor department, who is expected to testify this week, and Julia Nagano, the harbor's director of public affairs.

Early in the investigations, federal prosecutors typically focus on documents instead of testimonies, former prosecutors say, and that appears to be happening in Los Angeles. In February, the U.S. Attorney's Office sought documents from the heads of the departments of harbor, airport and water and power, stretching from 1998 to the present. Federal prosecutors also sought documents last month from Jim Ritchie, deputy executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, and Airport Commission President Ted Stein related to an LAX expansion plan contract for URS Corp.

"There's probably a lot more going on behind the scenes," Lewis said. "Federal prosecutors have probably subpoenaed bank and contribution records for all these commissioners and city officials."

By seeking documents, federal prosecutors can cloak the targets of their investigation and avoid tipping off defense attorneys. The purpose of federal subpoenas, they say, is less about gathering evidence and more about strategically recording individual testimonies that may lead to perjury indictments. Individuals who testify cannot have an attorney in the room but are allowed to go outside in the halls for legal counsel, said one former FBI official. Rarely do federal investigators subpoena targets of an investigation.

Subpoenas also can be used by both agencies to get lower level staff workers to talk about what they know, Lewis said. The biggest challenge in public corruption cases is convincing contractors or city officials to talk, he said.

"They're trying to find somebody with no vested interest in this transaction who may have knowledge about it who's willing to talk about it," he said.

Late last month, when the District Attorney's Office issued subpoenas to Al Fierstine, director of business development at the harbor department, and Audrey Yamaki, secretary to the harbor commission, secretaries for Fierstine and Keller appeared during the testimonies.

Given the apparent broad-brush approach in both investigations, any present or former contractor or city official or lower-level staff member or secretary involved in contracts at the city's three largest departments may get a phone call from investigators at either agency. Sources say those individuals with the largest pockets have already snapped up about 30 of L.A.'s top defense lawyers in the past few weeks. Those with less money have sought lesser-known counsel, as well.

"It's going to be a big deal," said one lawyer familiar with the case. "Everybody with this expertise probably will be involved because there are so many people."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.