Kevin ScanlonSteve Cooley
After winning the Republican primary for attorney general, Steve Cooley ripped into his Democratic opponent, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, after her office was accused of hiding information at trial of a drug lab technician caught using cocaine.
But Harris isn't the only candidate for attorney general with employee problems: Cooley is being sued by his own staff.
A federal lawsuit filed by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys alleges that Cooley, the district attorney of Los Angeles, made it a policy to punish its members with punitive transfers, demotions, reduced benefits, and other disciplinary measures. The group has accused Cooley of destroying a member's 2008 campaign mailer and harassing a media outfit that was hosting a gang conference with the union.
In a preliminary injunction filed in March, U.S. District Court Judge Otis D. Wright called the evidence provided by the union "striking and rampant," and ordered Cooley’s office to stop "discriminating or retaliating against members of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys on the basis of their membership in ADDA."
Steve Ipsen, who was president of the deputy district attorneys association when the lawsuit was filed, called the ruling unprecedented.
"The judge’s ruling said what I knew was true in a more damning and clear way than I ever could," said Ipsen, who ran for district attorney against Cooley in 2008.
The Harris campaign already started to launch attacks based on the lawsuit.
Brian Brokaw, Harris’ campaign spokesman, said the lawsuit and subsequent federal injunction raises issues of character and "paints a troubling picture of a politician who places personal vendettas over public safety. This should raise serious issues concerning whether we want him to be the next attorney general."
Kevin Spillane, Cooley's campaign spokesman, declined to comment.
Suppressing mail allegations
The lawsuit alleges that Cooley and his top-level staff conspired to stop a campaign mailer that was going to all deputy district attorneys.
On May 26, 2008, James Bozajian, an ADDA member and city council member for the city of Calabasas, sent out a critical newsletter about Cooley in the heat of the primary race for district attorney. The letter was titled "10 Reasons Why Steve Cooley Does Not Deserve Another Term in Office."
The letter accused Cooley of securing raises for himself but not deputy district attorneys; breaking many campaign promises; being too "cozy" with defense attorneys; and taking contributions from companies that could present conflicts of interest. The letter also mentions Cooley's "battles" with the deputy district attorneys association.
"We cannot afford to allow the important mission of our office to float adrift for the next four years, held hostage by an incumbent who remains unaccountable to his constituents and unwilling to do more than immerse himself in the trappings of a public office he does not deserve to hold," Bozajian wrote.
Bozajian said he sent out about 1,000 of these letters to deputy attorney's at all 40 of the county offices at his personal expense. The letters were sent through U.S. mail.
After the letter was sent, Cooley conducted a meeting with his top advisers and ordered that the mail be impounded, Bozajian claims.
"They had no authority to do it," Bozajian said. "They never had done that with any other document."
Though most of the newsletters did reach their recipients throughout the entire D.A.'s office, Bozajian said he believes a third of the letters were impounded.
In a complaint that he wrote to the D.A.'s office, Bozajian said he wanted disciplinary action to be taken against those behind the seizure of his newsletter and the immediate release of the letters that had been impounded.
"I consider this action to be a very serious violation of my constitutional rights, and a potential criminal and/or civil violation of various federal statutes governing distribution of the mail," Bozajian said in his complaint.
Brian Hershman, an attorney representing the D.A.'s office, said he could not comment because he was unfamiliar with the incident.
Denied benefits, intimidation alleged
The federal complaint also alleges that Cooley and Los Angeles County colluded to keep the union from obtaining a reduction in health care costs that other nonunionized members were being granted.
In October 2009, the county indicated it was going to reduce the monthly health benefit costs for all county workers, except for members of the ADDA and two other unions that were engaged in collective bargaining agreements.
Les Tolnai, assistant county counsel, said that the county did not reduce the health benefit fees for ADDA members because negotiations between the county and the union were not yet completed.
"It's a basic principle of labor negotiations that an employer cannot change the benefits of its employees without conferring with the union," Tolnai said.
Matthew Monforton, an attorney representing the union, said he rejected this explanation because at the time negotiations between the ADDA, Cooley's office and the county had been stopped after the union had filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Employee Relations Commission.
The lawsuit also alleges that Cooley’s office used D.A. investigators to "gag media coverage of the ADDA."
The allegations stem from an incident in which two investigators from Cooley’s office arrived at the office of Leslie Dutton, Emmy-award winning producer of the news program "Full Disclosure," to question her about a conference on gang issues that she was going to hold.
The conference was co-sponsored by L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, and the union. It was slated to have law enforcement groups and citizens talk about the issues and solutions to gang problems in L.A.
Upon finding out the union would co-sponsor the conference, Dutton sent an e-mail to all deputy prosecutors announcing the event and letting prosecutors know that it was co-sponsored by the union.
On July 5, 2007, two armed investigators from the D.A.’s office showed up at Dutton’s office, according to the union's complaint. They told Dutton they wanted to know who was behind the gang conference, and asked her who had given her the deputy attorney’s e-mail addresses.
Dutton said the investigators produced no authorization as to why they were questioning her, but simply said they needed to protect the D.A.’s computer system from viruses.
She asked if she had done anything illegal by sending the e-mails. They told her she had not.
The two men refused to tell her who had sent them, but Dutton did get one of the investigators to show her his badge. That investigator declined to comment. "I don't even know who you are," he said when reached by California Watch. "I am not answering anything."
Dutton said that she was shaken by the incident.
"It is intimidating when you have two investigators come to your door and tell you that they want to question you,” Dutton said.
Two weeks after the investigators had questioned Dutton, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department withdrew its support of the conference and Dutton decided to cancel it. The lawsuit alleges that the D.A.'s office pressured the sheriff's department to withdraw its support because of the ADDA’s participation.
In a court document, attorneys for the D.A.'s office denied the allegations. And attorney Hershman, who represents the D.A.'s office, said the investigators were not at Dutton's office to harass, but simply to find out how she had obtained a private e-mail list in order to protect the office's computers from hackers.
Bozajian has been transferred eight times in the last eight years, which the union's complaint alleges are retaliatory measures because of his involvement in the ADDA.
The transfers include a three-year stint in the juvenile courts from 2001 to 2004. The complaint notes that assignments in juvenile courts are usually entry-level positions for inexperienced attorneys.
"It’s not usual for someone at my level," said Bozajian, who is a Grade IV deputy attorney who has worked with the district attorney’s office for more than 20 years. Grade IV deputy attorneys typically handle more complicated cases, like murder or fraud. "You feel a bit isolated because there is not a lot you can do about things like this. We felt good when we got together to file this lawsuit. The lawsuit protected us."
Bozajian noted that deputy attorneys had not been unionized since 1989. It took 17 years for deputy attorneys to feel the need to unionize, mostly because of Cooley’s broken promises and behavior as district attorney, Bozajian said.
"This man really should not be attorney general," Bozajian added.
Bozajian’s transfer is not the only one mentioned in the complaint that the ADDA has alleged is punitive. Five different "punitive" transfers of ADDA members, or prospective members, are noted in the 80-page complaint.
Hershman said the transfers do not represent retaliation.
"There are 500 to 1,000 transfers a year," Hershman said. "It's part of the institution of the office. There are some people who are happy and there are some people who are unhappy about their transfers."
Marc Debbaudt, vice president of the ADDA, was also transferred on terms that the union described as retaliatory.
On October 9, 2008, Debbaudt, a Grade IV deputy attorney with more than 20 years of experience, was transferred to an entry-level position in Pomona Juvenile Courts, which was 42 miles from his home.
Prior to being transferred, the complaint notes, Debbaudt helped draft complaints to the Employee Relations Commission about the D.A.'s office, and had been a member of the union's bargaining committee. (More than a dozen complaints about Cooley have been filed with ERCOM; Cooley's office has in the past described these complaints as the work of a small band of disgruntled employees.)
Debbaudt had been a vocal critic of Cooley, including sending out numerous e-mails, public statements, and newsletters criticizing many of his polices, including Cooley’s stance on California's three-strikes law.
Cooley made it policy for deputy district attorneys not to pursue three-strikes cases unless the third crime committed had been a violent or serious crime.
In his ERCOM complaint, he
When Debbaudt was transferred, contract negotiations between the county and the ADDA were getting underway, which the union describes as a "deliberate effort to interfere with contract negotiations."
In his 2009 performance evaluation, Debbaudt was described by his supervisor as "the best calendar deputy I have ever seen in the office."
In Judge Wright's preliminary injunction, he noted that Cooley had ordered the transfer himself, and quoted defendant Jacquelyn Lacey, an administrative assistant in the D.A.'s office: "Grade IV deputy district attorneys such as Debbaudt are never transferred to entry-level juvenile assignments.”
After two months working in Pomona, Debbaudt was transferred to Sylmar Juvenile Court, where he currently works. He said that he is doing entry-level work, and as a Grade IV attorney, he is paid three times what an average attorney doing his job in Sylmar does.
"It's a clear waste of resources," Debbaudt said.
Hershman said that Debbaudt, a vocal critic of Cooley's three-strikes policy, was transferred because Cooley was not confident of his ability to follow through on his three-strikes policy. He said that Debbaudt was transferred by Cooley to juvenile courts where he would not have to handle three-strikes cases.
Debbaudt rejected this explanation, pointing to testimony Cooley made before the Employee Relations Commission where Cooley stated that he had not found any prior three-strikes case where Debbaudt had not followed the policy.
"It’s pretty clear it was based on anti-union animus, and based on (Cooley’s) dislike that someone had stood up to challenge him," Debbaudt said.