Steve Cooley

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Steve Cooley in California

He has been the Los Angeles County District Attorney.

Steve Cooley Biography and Problems

by Zachary Winnick (2011)

Embroiled in union-busting charges, the Los Angeles district attorney could face a tough reelection campaign.

Steve Cooley can’t catch a break. In November 2010 he lost the race for California’s attorney general by a razor-thin margin, and now the Los Angeles County district attorney faces federal civil charges that he retaliated against union leaders and chilled participation in a nascent labor organization for deputy DAs.

Set for September 2011, the trial will likely impact next year’s race for L.A. County district attorney, since a number of the parties named in the lawsuit are running for the seat. Details of the dispute read like the script of a network television legal drama.

Take Robert Dver, a veteran prosecutor. Dver sought the advice of Jacquelyn Lacey, a close friend and a top official at the DA’s office, before deciding whether to join the bargaining team of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) in 2008. According to testimony he gave to the L.A. County Employee Relations Commission (ERCOM) before the federal suit was filed, Lacey warned Dver that Cooley disliked the newly certified prosecutors’ union and its then-president, Steve Ipsen.

Undeterred, Dver approached Cooley for guidance. “Cooley is a friend of mine,” Dver testified. “He was at my kids’ bar mitzvahs.”

But the top prosecutor told Dver that the union was going to be a disaster, and encouraged him to join two other deputy DAs in efforts to undermine the organization, Dver testified. Cooley voiced particular disdain for Ipsen, calling him a “crook” and telling Dver that anyone who worked with him was “contaminated.”
Cooley summed up his message to Dver in his own testimony before ERCOM in April 2010: “I told him if you sleep with shit, you smell like shit.”

Nonetheless, Dver didn’t turn against the union, and six months after his conversation with Cooley he was transferred to a less desirable post. Ipsen also was reassigned and received poor performance evaluations after he engaged in union-related activities.

Dver’s treatment is at the heart of the federal suit against Cooley and other DA officials, as are claims of retaliatory transfers against two other veteran prosecutors, as well as union leaders. (Dver has not joined the suit, stating he’s not a litigious person, although his ERCOM testimony features prominently in the complaint.)
Meanwhile, the DA’s office, denies that any of the transfers were improper. “If you really delve into it at all, it’s clear that the transfers had nothing to do with the union or union activities,” says Brian Hershman, a partner at Jones Day hired by Cooley to defend him.

But a district judge, issuing a preliminary injunction against the DA last March, pointed to “explicit retaliation by Defendants that is both striking and rampant.” And a November decision in the ERCOM proceedings identified “a deliberate and thinly disguised campaign” by the DA’s office to “destroy” ADDA through a “pattern of antiunion conduct so overt and vehement, it harkens back to an earlier and less civil time in employer-employee relations.”
Regardless of how the case shakes out in court, the clash will continue on the political battlefield. Defendants Lacey, who is now the office’s number two official, and Mario Trujillo, head deputy at it’s Bellflower branch, have already announced they’ll be candidates in the upcoming district attorney election. Cooley may yet run for a fourth term, and Ipsen is rumored to be throwing his hat in the ring.

The lawsuit has already influenced the race for the top job in the country’s largest prosecutor’s office. Deputy DA Danette Meyers, a candidate who is not a party to the suit, has raised labor relations as an issue in the campaign.
“I’m a big union person,” Meyers told LA Weekly in January, after announcing her candidacy. “I wouldn’t run around union-busting.”

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