PATT MORRISON ASKS

Steve Cooley: L.A.'s D.A.

He's been district attorney since 2000; now he's aiming to be state attorney general.

Steve Cooley's isn't a face that's all over YouTube or the nightly news, and he's fine with that. In spite of the celeb cases that have come through the county district attorney's office -- the decades-long case against Roman Polanski and murder cases like Phil Spector's (convicted) and Robert Blake's (acquitted, which prompted Cooley to declare him nonetheless "guilty as sin" and the jury "incredibly stupid") -- Cooley is more in Hollywood than of it.

But you may be seeing more of Los Angeles County's D.A.: he's running for state attorney general.

You can't get more California than Cooley. He was born here and went to Cal State L.A. and USC law school. He has been in the D.A.'s office since the Nixon administration, and got elected to the top job in 2000.

Cooley follows a long line of L.A. D.A.'s in launching himself toward the state attorney general's office. Where he sits now, however, is on the 18th floor of the Criminal Courts Building downtown, which is chockablock with mementos of his career: the novels of his favorite writers, Joseph Wambaugh, Michael Connelly and his friend James Ellroy (Cooley spent several years as an LAPD reserve officer) and pictures of his wife, Jana, their two grown children, and his Welsh springer spaniels, Dylan and Coner.

You've been elected three times. You're practically the FDR of the D.A.'s office.

Well, I'm not the Harold Stassen!

When you ran a third time, people threw back at you what you said about the incumbent in 2000: If you can't get the job done in two terms, it's time to move on.

Someone very smart had told me that -- John Van de Kamp [former Los Angeles district attorney and California attorney general]. He said: "Steve, if you can't get it done in two terms, it probably can't be done." I changed my mind. There's always ways to improve and new problems. It's like this moving target with new challenges, new cases, and we're still accomplishing an awful lot.

Your office created a division to deal with government corruption, from outright crime to violations of the Brown Act, which ensures public access to government meetings. There was some criticism that you were focusing on small, minority-led cities.

Wrong. That's an old criticism. The city of Vernon, a 75-year dynasty of one family, the Malburgs -- a small city but a long-term corrupt entity. [Leonis Malburg and his wife, Dominica, were convicted of several felonies.] L.A. city commissioner Leland Wong -- big city, international bribery, lots of other violations.

We're an equal-opportunity prosecutorial agency when it comes to public corruption. Brown Act enforcement -- it was passed in 1952; never enforced until 2001 in L.A. County. Largest county population-wise in the country, 88 cities, hundreds of school districts, water districts, electric districts, and we don't have any Brown Act problems? Come on. The Public Integrity Division has been very healthy for government.

Do they like the acronym?

They do. They call themselves the PID.

Your policy is that a nonviolent, non-gun, non-drug offense isn't an automatic third strike.

I did [that] within 10 days of being sworn in. I think it's seeped down conceptually throughout California. Certainly there's a great reduction in cases that could be called abuses of the three-strikes law.

You also get hammered on it. Mike Reynolds, an author of three strikes, wrote that you are "completely unsuitable" for the office of state attorney general.

If you have a good, powerful law like this, if you abuse it, it will be taken away from you. We almost lost three strikes several years ago, and it was only retained by the U.S. Supreme Court. The appellate courts cited my evenhanded application [and] proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion as the reason it should be upheld as constitutional. So those who are still criticizing me, they're obviously uninformed; [they're] demagogues looking for an issue. My policy is well conceived, well executed and I'm proud of it.

What is it about the A.G.'s office that interests you?How is it different?

When you're a front-line prosecutor, a D.A., you're more of a plumber or a carpenter building a house. When you're the attorney general, you're more the architect, planning it out and trying to think strategically of the big picture.

la-oe-morrison20-2010feb20
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