Gangsta rap

Knight, founded Death Row Records, the label that shaped the rise of gangsta rap. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

Death Row Records owner Marion "Suge" Knight signed the teenage daughter of prosecutor Lawrence M. Longo to a record contract while Longo was monitoring Knight's probation from a 1992 assault.

In addition, Knight lived this summer in an oceanfront home leased from Longo's family in the exclusive Malibu Colony, home to movie stars and entertainment moguls.

Longo, who was abruptly taken off Knight's case last month, said Thursday that his family's financial relationships with Knight did not affect his decisions about the case, which he supervised for nearly four years. He denied any wrongdoing.

He acknowledged that he had initially pursued the case against Knight aggressively but said Thursday his views of the record company executive had changed--though not because of subsequent financial dealings with Knight.

The district attorney's office said Longo has been under investigation since the office learned Sept. 17 that Knight had been living in the Malibu house. Longo remains at work in the Beverly Hills courthouse, but a senior prosecutor said the department was investigating possible violations ranging from ethical impropriety to criminal conduct.

Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti declined to comment Thursday.

Knight, 31, built Death Row into the first rap label to consistently dominate the pop charts, a powerhouse that generates more than $100 million in annual retail sales. Its stars and executives, however, have been associated with violence--among them rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus and who was acquitted of murder earlier this year, and Tupac Shakur, gunned down Sept. 7 in Las Vegas in a car driven by Knight. Earlier this year, the FBI launched an investigation of Death Row inquiring into allegations of gang-related drug trafficking and money laundering.

In February 1995, Longo agreed to settle the assault case with a plea bargain that spared Knight nine years in state prison. Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk approved the deal but termed it "rather unusual." On Monday, Ouderkirk returned Knight to jail pending a hearing on possible probation violations.

In an interview Thursday, Longo said: "Why should Suge Knight bother to sign [my daughter] if she doesn't have any talent? What was he going to gain? I told Suge Knight before he signed her to the label that he was not going to get any special treatment from me. That's all there is to it."

He said that the house, which is held in a family trust, had been rented to David Kenner, Knight's lawyer in the assault case, and asserted that Kenner had installed Knight in the home, located on the beach in the exclusive Malibu Colony. Residents, irate over noisy parties that they complained sometimes carried on until dawn, said they had called sheriff's deputies to the scene several times this summer.

"I rented the house to David Kenner and he was allowed to rent it to whoever he wanted," said Longo. "When I found out [Knight was living there], I felt a little uneasy about it. I said to Kenner, 'You're placing me in an awkward position and I want you to know that if something goes wrong, you're not going to get any favorable treatment from me.' "

Longo continued: "I made it very clear when I accepted the plea bargain that [Knight] wasn't going to get any special treatment from me. I told him that my career is as straight as an arrow and if he [messed] up while on probation, he was going to jail."

Longo added that his son, Frank, who is also an attorney, negotiated and signed the record contract and the lease for the house.

"My father had nothing to do with either deal," Frank Longo said Thursday. "I negotiated both of them."

Knight could not be reached for comment. Calls to the West Los Angeles offices of Death Row Records were referred to Kenner, who declined to comment.

Legal ethics experts said Thursday that the circumstances bore the appearance of impropriety. "The appearances are terrible," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School dean and former federal prosecutor.

"It's important for a prosecutor to remain as objective as possible, to avoid any vested interest, personally or through your family in a defendant or a case," Levenson said.

"That's common sense. Common sense applies here. That's why the appearances are terrible."

Longo, 56, a son of a wealthy investor and developer, has been a deputy district attorney since 1970, the year after he graduated from LaVerne Law School.