District Attorney Steve Cooley Opens About Career, Future, Noguez Arrest

Note: This is the second and final installment of an exclusive interview with Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley by La Mirada Lamplighter Publisher Brian Hews and Reporter Randy Economy. In this article, Cooley opens up about his future plans, his greatest accomplishments and how important of a role LCCN played in helping piece together alleged criminal activities deep inside the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office. The interview was conducted in DA Cooley’s office in Downtown Los Angeles just 48 hours after the arrest of Assessor John Noguez, and two others.

By Randy Economy and Brian Hews

“This guy is going down,” Cooley said about Noguez. “We have so much evidence, it is overwhelming the case we have on him.”

“Well, he got arraigned yesterday (Thursday), and he (Noguez) didn’t look too happy. This is such an out of body experience for him,” Cooley said.

“There was a sense very early on (in the investigation) that there was some substance to the allegations within the Assessor’s Department,” Cooley told LCCN.
“When we did the search warrants, many months ago, there was realization that we were going to get the goods on this guy, it was just a matter of time, and pulling it all together, finding the parcels involved,” Cooley said with a stern look on his face.

“The key was finding promissory notes that Noguez had signed back to Salari, and then going in with the search warrants and finding the actual checks written to Noguez by Salari and then finding a list of properties that were Salari’s clients, we figured that one out pretty early, and we were able to build our case around witnesses,” Cooley said.

Cooley also confirmed to LCCN that the massive investigation is still “going strong.”
“The next phase of the case will be focused on political money laundering, by individuals, and that is a different form of political corruption,” Cooley said.

“This next phase of the investigation will be about bribes and misappropriation of public funds by lowering assessments of property and then perjury charges,” Cooley said.

“There are additional sanctions for being public officials when it comes to dealing with misappropriating public funds and that they must vacate their office and that they may never hold elected office again,” Cooley said.

The case against Noguez and the Assessor’s office began in earnest in the late spring of this year, Cooley said. He said that he and members of this prosecutorial staff had monitored media reports from Los Cerritos Community Newspaper as well as other publications.

“There were two assigned trial lawyers, supervised by Dave Demerjian, Head Deputy of Public Integrity, and two entire squads of investigators, a lot of law clerks, a lot of volunteer law clerks who worked around the clock,” Cooley said.

He also said the amount of evidence against Noguez, additional Assessor staff members, as well as other political operatives is “overwhelming.”

“There were millions of pages of documents, computer emails, and actual computers,” Cooley said. He also talked about a program his office created that analyzed documents through a special “keyword” search component.

“You can’t read a million documents, so we created a program that does keywords on people and subjects. We seized a lot of computers, scanned all of their hard drives, and some of them were doing this on County of Los Angeles computers,” Cooley said.

Cooley said several “political operatives” also were involved in getting properties reduced for clients who retained their services. “In additional to personal lap tops, tablets, cell phones, and other messaging devices, we have the trail of evidence we need for our case.”

“We have a great team of prosecuting attorney’s and investigators working on this case and it is still ongoing, there is a lot more to come.”

Cooley said that his prosecutors are not going to “condemn” someone “just because their name appeared on a contribution list” for Noguez.

“What is interesting is that there are entire groups of people with the same last name who live in the same location who all gave contributions, and that’s money laundering, and that may have been the case in some of these situations,” Cooley exclaimed.

“So, we got four (Noguez, McNeil, Salari) and (Property Appraiser Scott) Schenter.
LCCN asked if Schenter turned State’s evidence. “Schenter has been talking to the press, he is no angel, but I don’t want to go into the particulars of the case (against him),” Cooley said.

One reporter during the press conference questioned Cooley about the amount of bail against Noguez, Salari and McNeil. “The bail amount is not high; it starts by the amount of loss that we allege was stolen, so that amount has to be the bail.”

Cooley confirmed that the amount of the assessed values that were lost is indeed “around a billion dollars.” “The 13 properties alleged are not all the properties, there could be thousands of them (involved), but we picked 13 that were egregious. We will tie it to money laundering.”

So as he begins to wind down his final days as District Attorney, LCCN asked him the pointed question. What’s it like to be Steve Cooley these days and what does he have planned for the future?

“I want to be flexible, spend more time with my grandkids. I have three grandkids, one of them was recently adopted and brought here from Korea and we will have another grandchild, his baby brother, who is expected to arrive in the next few months,” he said.

Cooley, a strong supporter of his alma mater the University of Southern California, said he is barred by law in making any contractual agreements for any future employment. He said he will be “weighing his options” after December.

Cooley is now helping his close personal alley Jackie Lacey to replace him as District Attorney in the upcoming November election.

“Jackie Lacey will probably win the election. She knows how the office runs, and she is a good person, she has the personal experience and qualities needed at this time, and is by far the best choice in this election. She’s also a great trial lawyer. She’s got a guy on death row; she prosecuted three gang members on hate crimes in the Antelope Valley, and put one of them on death row. She knows her stuff,” Cooley said.

He also had strong feelings about Lacey’s opponent, one of his criminal prosecutors Alan Jackson.
“Alan Jackson is a talented trial lawyer amongst talented trial lawyers. He has very good skills in that arena, he has no administrative experience at all, he just doesn’t have it. We are talking about overseeing a $330 million budget, 2,100 employees, 300 DA investigators, law enforcement duties, and you need to have a feel on how to run a big organization, and Jackie has got that,” Cooley said.

He also said “starting the Public Integrity Division, and pursuing public corruption effectively,” was his greatest accomplishment as District Attorney.

“I am also proud of advancing the use of Forensic Sciences and DNA in solving criminal cases with a special emphasis on the utilization of rape kit investigations, and proud of our accomplishment in using DNA in the case of Lonnie David Franklin and the Grim Sleeper Case,” Cooley told LCCN.

District Attorney Steve Cooley was beaming as he told LCCN about all the work his office had done in the murder case that took the life of Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff David March by an illegal alien criminal gang member back in April of 2001.

“Back at that time, Mexico had a policy against extraditing people that faced a life sentence, we fought that for four or five years in the print media, talk radio, everywhere,” he said.

“We made our case, got some laws changed, got Congress to pass sanctions and got lots of changes that eventually lead to the extradition of Armando Garcia and his trial and conviction. He is now sitting in a California State prison cell. This one case effective hundreds of other cases here in California that have resulted in extraditions and successful convictions.

“There has never been a District Attorney’s Office to have a dedicated division to public corruption, specifically focused on this issue; it was also part of a Special Investigations Division until we changed. Our Public Integrity Division has a clear focus, and a clear mission, and that is why we put the proper resourced into there,” he said.

“We put a lot of talented people in there, and it worked. Dave Demerjian has done a great job with our Public Integrity Division for the past ten and 12 years. When you’re the boss, you get to make decisions, and allocate the resources needed and cleaning up corruption in our cities needed to become a major priority. Well, we did it. Other County District Attorney’s all over California have seen what we did down here, and many of them have started their own public integrity divisions,” he said.

“You can have crooks anyplace. You got corruption in these small towns here in LA County. Greed doesn’t stop at city lines, and it isn’t like we have a monopoly on it here,” Cooley commented.
Cooley also said that “personal friendships with people in politics” do not deter his office from “going after them if they break the law.”

“If I know of an elected official who was breaking the law, I would rescue myself, and say I wouldn’t touch that case,” he said.

Cooley said he is mulling the possibility of pinning a book about his career with James Elroy, from LA Noir fame that was responsible for the blockbuster movie and book LA Confidential. “I have lots to talk about and what took place here in the last 12 years. We could write about forensic sciences and how it was used to solve old cold cases, to murder cases, celebrity cases, and public corruption, there is a wealth of material out there; it is all about just pulling it all together.

Does he have any regrets? “No, none. Nothing that comes to mind.”

What about him being defeated for Attorney General in 2010 by San Francisco Attorney General Kamala Harris? “I think it worked out great, because I lost. The California State government is a complete mess, they have budgetary crisis throughout the state including the Attorney General’s Office. Between Governor Brown and Kamala Harris they wiped out the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement which was one of the larger and most important enforcement tools, it was a great operation. It is not a priority of them, I guess. I would have ended up miserable in that job. I would have done a better job than Kamala Harris but it would have been a miserable job. This is a great job. I work with great people here, and these past two years we have had great cases, like Noguez and the rest of them. It worked out okay for me. “
Cooley also praised the efforts of Los Cerritos Community Newspaper.

“What was your thought about Los Cerritos Community Newspaper, when we started our series of articles on the case back in early 2012,” reporter Randy Economy asked Cooley.

“I thought about you guys (Los Cerritos Community Newspaper) that you are a relatively small publication but doing very large work. But I always considered the 4th Estate to be an alley and a partner in ensuring an honest government, and that is the role you play. Your scrutiny of public officials and public activity is vital. We can’t do it all by just prosecuting people. I wish there were more newspapers out there like LCCN. One of the great problems in Los Angeles County right now is that there are not enough good, critical newspapers. The LA Times is a great newspaper but they can’t do it all, and they suffered huge cutbacks in terms of their staff. The Daily News and the LA News Group do a pretty good job, the Tribune, the Star News, the Breeze. It is unfortunate that it is strictly a market function.

“I like picking up a paper (with an LCCN in his hand), opening it up, I got to see what is going on.”
Cooley also agreed to write the forward in a book that is being authored by Hews and Economy that outlines their personal journey from being a small community newspaper to a nominee for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in less than one year.

As he gazed out over the LA skyline from his office, Cooley said “Los Angeles County is a small town. 12.4 million people live here and it amazes me how small of a community it really is.”

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