- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2010

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley says his county’s scandal-plagued, predominantly Hispanic immigrant cities have afforded opportunities for criminal gangs and drug-trafficking organizations and created a climate ripe for political corruption.

“If I was a drug dealer and I didn’t want to be interfered with, I’d move to a city where I could exploit dysfunctional city governments, corrupt the police or be left alone in a neighborhood where people are not as active in monitoring their communities,” said Mr. Cooley, the Republican candidate for California attorney general. “That;s where I’d want my dope house.”

He made the comments in response to questions from The Washington Times in connection with recent reports of exorbitant salaries for municipal officials in Bell, Calif. - a city at the center of a gang-infested slew of cities in the Los Angeles suburbs that serve as a transshipment point for narcotics from Mexico and Colombia.

Mr. Cooley acknowledged that an area of Los Angeles and surrounding counties is a hub for narcotics distribution and well-connected gangs.

He said he saw the “possibility” that gangs and drug trafficking organizations could seek to influence politicians and government officials in these cities along the Interstate 710 corridor, many of which have been targets of his corruption probes. But he stopped short of saying their influence has been felt on local politics.

“We’re not seeing that yet. Though we have seen a prison gang controlling street gangs, we haven’t seen direct evidence of drug cartels controlling city halls,” he said.

Mr. Cooley said the FBI is investigating political corruption in cities that border Bell - most notably the small city of Cudahy to the south. On the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing inquiry, law enforcement officials familiar with the Cudahy probe said that the investigation has expanded to include suspected gang and cartel connections to Cudahy city officials.

The three-term district attorney won office in 2000 on a pledge to clean up municipal corruption throughout Los Angeles County, and by all accounts has done more to prosecute fraud, waste and abuse than his immediate predecessors.

But in light of the Bell salary scandal, in which public officials were found to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual salaries, questions remain about the effectiveness of his office in fighting corruption.

The Public Integrity Division, or PID, was a hallmark of the Cooley administration in 2000, when he was elected in a landslide over unpopular incumbent Gil Garcetti, driven from office in part because of his handling of the O.J. Simpson prosecution.

Since then, the PID unit has filed more than 50 cases against officials in more than 30 of Los Angeles Countys 88 cities, on charges ranging from embezzlement to campaign finance violations to shoplifting.

Bell is not among those cities, nor is Cudahy.

In the immediate aftermath of news reports on the salaries scandal, Mr. Cooley’s top deputy in charge of public corruption seemed dismissive of the incident in an e-mail addressing a constituent concern.

“The city council of Bell has the authority to pay their employees any amount of money that they deem appropriate and this office has no authority to question those decisions,” David Demerjian wrote to a local resident last month in an e-mail obtained by The Times. “Neither does the attorney general or the state Senate or the state assembly or the governor or the president of the United States.”

As protests and national media attention mounted, Bell officials stepped down and the city cut council members’ salaries. Amid the controversy, Mr. Cooley’s office and California Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democratic candidate for governor, launched still-widening probes.

The public outcry over the Bell salary scandal was so severe that it prompted a security presence at the homes of several city officials.

Such concerns were consistent with the death threats, shootings and Molotov cocktails that have marred the politics in Bell’s neighboring cities of Cudahy, South Gate and Maywood in recent years.

Asked to comment on the gangland-type violence that has plagued the democratic process in these cities, Mr. Cooley agreed that local law enforcement would have to fight that battle.

“You need a police investigation when that happens,” he said. “It’s like political terrorism, it’s like Third World stuff. If we get a complaint, then fine, we’ll prosecute to the extent there’s evidence.”

However, aside from a guilty plea by a former Maywood city clerk who reportedly threatened the lives of two elected officials in that city, no charges have been filed against any of the perpetrators of the threats and actual violence in these cities.

California State Assemblyman Hector De La Torre was a City Council member in South Gate in 1999 when a colleague was shot in the head after standing up to the political machine of city Treasurer Albert Robles, whom Mr. Cooley’s office later convicted of bribery and money laundering.

Mr. De La Torre said that based on his experience in South Gate, he has faith in Mr. Cooley’s office to clean up corrupt cities.

“His predecessor wouldn’t touch [political corruption] with a 10-foot pole,” Mr. De La Torre said. “It is unusual for politicians to go after or criticize other politicians. Folks don’t like it. They want you to leave them alone.”

Mr. De La Torre, during a recent interview in his district office in South Gate, said his constituents - who also include residents of Bell, Cudahy and Bell Gardens, which all have been subjects of criminal probes since Mr. Cooley took office - suffer from “disenfranchisement” in cities where public officials “are good at hiding information from the public.”

“They are young communities and working-class,” Mr. De La Torre said. “Most people are just trying to put food on the table. In my city, South Gate, half the population is under 21. Many people can’t vote, and parents are harried.”

Mr. De La Torre dodged questions about gang activity and violent tactics in the political arena.

“There are gangs, but I think it’s more likely for young people to be involved in criminal activity regardless of whether they are in a gang,” he said.

He acknowledged the presence of the powerful 18th Street Gang in cities in his district, but rejected any notion that they had any influence beyond street turf.

“I don’t know that,” he said.

Mr. Cooley said it is no coincidence that criminal gangs who associate with the prison-based Mexican Mafia and drug traffickers thrive in cities with large illegal immigrant populations.

“There is a criminal element among the illegal population and it is increasing, especially in the prison system,” he said.

But he drew a distinction between law enforcement issues and border issues that he said were best addressed through policy change in Washington.

“The federal government is going to have to do a better job of expanding immigration enforcement, as the population is spreading to the Northwest, Midwest and East Coast.”

In Bell, as well as in the surrounding cities, illegal immigrants make up a majority of residents. By virtually all estimates, California has the highest population of illegal immigrants of any state in the country.

That fact has forced Mr. Cooley to walk a fine line on illegal immigration while on the campaign trail. He has declined to take a definitive position on the issue, even as Republican attorneys general in Virginia, Michigan, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Nebraska and South Dakota recently signed on to a legal brief supporting Arizona’s stringent anti-immigrant law recently challenged by the Justice Department in federal court.

“It’s a national problem and a relatively recent phenomenon,” Mr. Cooley said. “We may have to see a national solution. We’ll see what they do.”

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