Terree Bowers, chief deputy to Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, this month ends a 23-year career in public service when he becomes a partner at Howrey LLP, specializing in white collar criminal defense work. A former federal prosecutor, Bowers was interim U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles from 1992 to 1994, during which time he handled several high-profile cases, including the federal Rodney King civil rights trial and the Charles Keating fraud case. Then he spent four years in The Hague as a U.S. representative at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. At the City Attorney’s Office, Bowers supervised the $5.7 million settlement with public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, which has been targeted in a criminal investigation about city contracts.
Question: Why did you leave the public sector?
I have two daughters, and my wife is expecting. There’s obviously a difference between what you can earn in the public and private sectors. Also, as I moved through my career, I became more and more detached from the courtroom. I was supervising hundreds of cases with varying degrees of involvement. This will give me an opportunity to get back into cases.
Q: While at the City Attorney’s Office, you supervised the $5.7 million settlement with Fleishman-Hillard. Why did the firm pay so much?
They faced a huge risk in litigating the case because it would take a long time before the case was decided. It obviously didn’t enhance their reputation to continually be in the news. We also had penalties and other provisions in the law that could have multiplied the actual loss significantly. I’m sure they thought it was in their best interest to resolve it rather than face that kind of exposure. They wanted to put this behind them and show they could clean up their own shop.
Q: Any idea how the federal investigation of Fleishman’s executives will turn out?
You have one (executive) who’s already cooperating, so that’s usually an advantage for the prosecution although you can never tell these days.
Q: Who bears responsibility for the situation rising to the level of a criminal investigation?
Some of it develops over time and people think they get more access as a result of contributing. It’s good the new mayor is requiring commissions to sign these ethics pledges because it can get out of hand. And I think the ethics commission does a very good job, but they’re somewhat understaffed. They have so many referrals it’s impossible for them to keep up with all of them.
Q: Is there some validity to the concerns about contracts?
Absolutely there is validity to those concerns. That’s why our attorneys, especially on the municipal counsel side, have been very vigilant in trying to maintain the credibility and sanctity of the bidding process and making sure that all the companies get a fair shake and that it’s an objective evaluation and the deck isn’t stacked. When we’ve seen conflicts that really concern us, we can make referrals to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the Ethics Commission, and we’ve done that on a number of occasions.
Q: What was it like working for Rocky Delgadillo?
You never rested on any of your laurels. No matter what you accomplished, there was always more to do. We wanted to get the neighborhood prosecutor program established. We did that, even during a time of fiscal concern in the city.
Q: But hasn’t the office been somewhat of a revolving door?
There’s some resistance to change. The greatest challenge was addressing the promotions and the salaries issues at a time when the city was really strapped financially.
Q: The City Attorney’s Office has been criticized for using taxpayer dollars to pay too many outside law firms. Are these valid concerns?
Their criticism is totally unfounded. We have exceptional in-house attorneys, and they do an outstanding job. But we occasionally encounter cases where we have a conflict. Our office is involved so we can’t represent the city. There, we don’t have a choice. We have to go to outside counsel. We sometimes get cases that are so complicated and so large involving so many plaintiffs, we don’t have the physical capacity or the resources to handle that type of litigation. Sometimes we need specialties, like the LAX expansion. You have to look at the whole picture.
Q: Why did you initially become a federal prosecutor?
After my second year in law school I did an internship with the Department of Justice. I worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Texas. It was a pretty exciting time. They were doing a lot of narcotics cases against some of these cartels, and the prosecutor I worked for had been attacked in San Antonio. So it was fairly intense.
Q: What did you do in L.A.?
I formed the first task force in the nation to combat telemarketing fraud. At the same time I was doing that, I got involved in prosecuting some terrorism cases and handling some of the more sensitive legal work.
Q: You had some very big cases during your brief tenure as interim U.S. Attorney.
Some of it was coincidental. We were able to take cases that might have had venue in a lot of different districts and made sure we were the office to do them. The office still gets some important cases. But the ability to prosecute those cases has been developed in a lot of other offices. There’s greater parity throughout the country now.
Q: Why did you become a lawyer?
When I was 10, my father, who was a sergeant in the Army, went to Okinawa. I remember standing on the tarmac at the airport and watching my father get on a plane. My father actually never came back from Okinawa. He died of a heart attack, out working on a missile site. What that taught us was you have to be self-sufficient. Attorneys are involved with almost every process in our society. I just figured attorneys have so much to do with almost anything that happens in society it couldn’t hurt to get that sort of training.
Q:How did you end up working at The Hague?
I was just on the verge of going back to the private sector again, when probably about 5 o’clock in the morning in April of ’94, I got this call from the Justice Department, and they said, “We have this window of opportunity to go into the former Yugoslavia. Can you be on a plane to Bosnia by the end of the week?” We only ended up being there for a couple of weeks and we were investigating atrocities at a detention facility, where a couple of people had been executing Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats. That was in April, and that’s how it all started with this investigative trip. After that, they said, “You’re going to be the representative at The Hague.”
Q: What was that like?
A lot of the cases were horrendous. You had ethnic cleansing in villages where men were executed and women were rounded up and kept in detention centers where paramilitary troops could go in and rape them. A lot of times you didn’t have access to the crime scene because they were still under the control of the forces who were allegedly committing the atrocity. And the survivors ended up all over the world. You’d have a case where the witnesses were in Sweden, Malaysia, the U.S. and Australia.
Q: What was your most memorable case?
The most memorable case involved a guy named Goran Jelisic. He had executed a lot of Muslims. He actually kept score and would come into the detention facility and say, “I’ve killed 15 Muslims today. I need to kill 10 more before the end of the day.” He was very efficient. The detention facility was a harbor facility. It was a port on the river and he would execute most people by having them come over and kneel over a grate on a drainage to the river so there wouldn’t be that much of a mess. He’d shoot them in the head over the grate. But that was an important case because we charged him with genocide. We did such a good job on the investigation that he ended up pleading guilty to all the murder counts except one.