Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for State Attorney General in November’s election, was born in Los Angeles on May 1, 1947. He is married to his wife, Jana, and they have two children, a 32 year old son and a 29 year old daughter. He graduated from Cal State LA in 1970 where he was student body president and commencement speaker. He graduated from USC Law School in 1973. He went to work for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office within 10 days of taking the State Bar Exam. Cooley is only the third person in L.A. history to be elected to three consecutive terms as district attorney.
Tony Medley: How did you meet your wife?
Steve Cooley: My wife and I met through my sister. They were best friends in high school.
TM: Was it a blind date?
SC: They were palling around for a year or so before we started dating. Jana and my sister Jan were both at Providence High School at the same time and then both enrolled at Cal State L.A.
TM: How long did you go together?
SC: We started dating in 1974 and dated 13 months before we got married. She was 19 and I was 27.
TM: How did you decide to become a lawyer?
SC: Probably a process of elimination; didn’t know what else to do. My mother encouraged me. My dad always said “get some kind of credential. You can always get by if you have some sort of craft.” It seemed like a logical thing to do.
TM: Did you go to law school right out of college or did you work for awhile?
TM: Why did you join the District Attorney’s office instead of doing something else?
SC: I was interested in criminal justice, the enforcement side. I had been working with the LAPD for a couple of years as a reserve patrol officer and I really enjoyed that side of it. I enjoyed criminal law classes in law school. I enjoyed being out on patrol with LAPD, so that was the logical way to go.
TM: Why did you decide to run for DA?
SC: After John Lynch ran unsuccessfully against Gil Garcetti, many people, many people, in and outside of the office, throughout law enforcement convinced me to run. There was a sense that someone could do better than what was going on. It grew on me throughout ’97 and ’98. So in 1999 I decided to do it.
TM: How did you raise the money?
SC: I started out with friends and family and it was hard. Then as it appeared more likely that I was going to prevail after the primary there was a lot more interest in the race. With $1,000 campaign limits you have to prove yourself as a candidate. I started out doing “meet and greets” and telling people what I thought. If people believe in you they support you. You get exposed to more people and they support you and the word spreads and eventually you’re having very large events, hugely attended.
TM: So it was grass roots?
SC: Pretty much grass roots, yes.
TM: How much did it cost?
SC: The first campaign the primary cost me in the low $400,000 and the general election against Garcetti was about a million.
TM: Was there any feedback by Garcetti while you were working there but running against him?
SC: Not really. I think he respected my First Amendment Rights to participate in the democratic process.
TM: Was there any big turning point in your life?
SC: Big turning point? No it was just sort of a steady progression (laughs). No gotcha moments. No turning points. Steady, logical progression. I lived in the same house for 34 years and five months in Toluca Lake. I’ve had the same wife for 36 years. Same job for 37 years.
TM: What are your hobbies?
SC: Hobbies. I have to confess I’m so busy doing my job and other things I don’t have any hobbies per se. I go to an occasional football game. I don’t have a high level of interest in watching all the games and keeping up. I just like an occasional SC game.
TM: Do you read?
SC: Yes. For pleasure, Wambaugh, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, plus an occasional high brow book or political intrigue fiction.
TM: How accurate do you find those things, especially Wambaugh and Connelly who write about the police?
SC: Those two are particularly attuned to the realities and true facts of the criminal justice system and police work in general.
TM: Have you ever seen Law and Order?
SC: Not that often, but occasionally yes. I think it’s a very well done drama but not that realistic. I’ve never in my entire career sat down with a criminal defendant in the same room and negotiated a case settlement or tried to extract a confession. That just doesn’t happen. It seems to be how they finish up most of their programs.
TM: How about Sam Waterston’s character? Is he realistic?
SC: Somewhat. I think when they have to tell their story in 42 minutes and tell it from both the standpoint of investigation and prosecution, they do a relatively good job.
TM: So it’s not something that you laugh at?
SC: No, I don’t laugh at it. Actually most of their stories and plots are taken from real life, oftentimes Los Angeles, even though they are based in New York. But now they have Law and Order LA so they can take Los Angeles cases and do them in Los Angeles.
TM: Are there any shows that work with the DA’s office?
SC: Not really. We’ve had many, many overtures and offers but usually our ethical constraints won’t allow us to do exactly what they want to do. So we don’t have that kind of relationship other than they can tour the office; they can come down and talk to me to get a feel for it. But we don’t have a relationship with any program.
TM: What are the two biggest changes or innovations that you brought to the DA’s office?
SC: First, creating the Public Integrity Division to root out, investigate, and prosecute corrupt public officials and corruption within public institutions. I created that in January, 2001 and it’s had a tremendous success statistically, qualitatively and quantitatively. It’s had a very good impact in Los Angeles County.
Second, our overall efforts in expanding forensic sciences, particularly in the area of DNA have been quite successful. I instituted a lot of training and a lot of emphasis on this. We have collaborated with the State Legislature and others. There have been all sorts of issues affected, like the rape kit backlog problem. We implemented the All Felony DNA database. Our office helped write that law. We give annual DNA awareness training for law enforcement and prosecutors at Cal State LA. That’s always a sellout, 500 people or so. We give in-service training.
TM: Didn’t they have forensic science before you became DA?
SC: The office was not emphasizing it, not highlighting it. There were changes and some opportunities that we took advantage of, like creating the All Felony database, writing the sexual assault victims Bill of Rights to help with the rape kit issue. We put our nose under the law enforcement tent in terms of what they were doing or not doing. It was at my urging that both the Sheriff and the LAPD started up cold case units. That’s led to the solving of a number of cases.
TM: You mean they didn’t have any cold case units before you came in?
SC: Nope. At that point in time DNA was just starting to take off. The evidence wasn’t there to go back and look at the old cold cases, particularly the DNA-type evidence, since there was no expanded DNA-type database. Those opportunities presented themselves, so that was an idea whose time had come. I created a special group of deputy DA’s to handle old cold cases.
TM: How many cold cases have been solved since you’ve been in roughly?
SC: I wouldn’t know. You’d have to drill down and talk to the various agencies. I know that Torrance has done some. LAPD and Sheriff have done a lot.
TM: All because you started it?
SC: No. The time was right and we were willing to cooperate and work with others and these cases uniquely involved prosecutors working at the front end with law enforcement. I don’t take the credit. I just think that a lot of good things came together and we seized the opportunity.
TM: What are the two biggest changes or innovations you want to bring to the Attorney General’s Office?
SC: They need a Public Integrity Division, skilled prosecutors and investigators to assist in pursuing allegations of public corruption at the state level. That same entity would be able to work with and support local district attorneys regarding local allegations of corruption.
Another is that there must be renewed emphasis on the Attorney General exercising his responsibility when it comes to Medi Cal vendor provider fraud. Read the LA Times today about the FBI breaking up that pattern of fraud that had been going on for years and years. The Attorney General’s Office has exclusive responsibility for pursuing that. I think they need to get in that game heavily and start protecting the State’s Medi Cal system from non traditional organized crime groups.
TM: What kind of job has Jerry Brown done as Attorney General?
SC: OK in some respects. In other areas I think there were areas for improvement. But I’m not running against him.
TM: Speaking of that, what do you think of your opponent’s negative ads against you?
SC: They are, of course, false, misleading. The only way she can win is to be negative because she has such a miserable record as District Attorney in San Francisco. So she has followed her consultants’ advice to go negative early to try and catch up.
TM: How are they false?
SC: I have not seen any of them. Until I do I can’t go through in detail. But in general from what I’ve heard they have taken things out of context, taken otherwise honest declarations and twisted them into something that’s inaccurate.
TM: Is there anything that can be done about these horrible political ads that are actually false, like making them criminal?
SC: Probably not. Criminal libel went by the boards 30 years ago. All you can do is hope for an informed public to reject that sort of technique. You can’t make it criminal. Theoretically you could sue for libel, but the standard for libel in the context of political speech is incredibly high. The people who put the ads together do so in very clever ways.
TM: What are the two cases of which you are most proud?
SC: Bringing back the killer of Deputy David March. Killer’s name was Armando Garcia. We got the laws changed so we could overcome the bar against extradition that the Mexican Supreme Court had imposed with respect to people facing life terms in the United States. We overcame all those hurdles over a five year period. We hunted him down, working with many others, U.S. Marshalls, Sheriff’s Department. He was captured in Mexico, convicted here in the United States and is now doing life in prison without the possibility of parole. A lot of people were willing to compromise and let him serve his time in Mexico and change our laws to make them more lenient so he could be extradited. I’m talking about a lot of Republicans and Democrats who just wanted the issue to go away. They didn’t want to hear about it any more but we never gave up, not in the LA County DA’s Office. We eventually prevailed and got the appropriate result. I’m very proud of that one.
The Grim Sleeper Case, the guy who killed 10 African American women in south central LA over a 17 year period, which was solved a few months ago, although it’s primarily an LAPD accomplishment. They would not have been able to solve the Grim Sleeper Case if I hadn’t personally urged Jerry Brown to develop a protocol to use what they call “partial match familial search” DNA technique. I wrote him a very strong letter back in 1997 when he was Attorney General suggesting that this technique is feasible and could solve certain otherwise unsolvable crimes. I think that caused him to change his mind which caused the Dept. of Justice to develop the protocols and techniques to do a partial match search of their DNA database. That led to the Grim Sleeper’s arrest.