Attorney General Candidate Profile: Steve Cooley
by Tony Medley
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for
State Attorney General in Novemberís 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 Attorneyís 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: How did you meet your wife?i
STEVE: My wife and I met through my sister.
They were best friends in high school.
Tony: Was it a blind date?
STEVE: 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
Tony: How long did you go together?
STEVE: We started dating in 1974 and dated 13
months before we got married. She was 19 and I was 27.
Tony: How did you decide to become a
STEVE: Probably a process of elimination;
didnít know what else to do. My mother encouraged me. My Dad always said
ďget some kind of credential. You can always get by if you have some
sort of craft.Ē It seemed like a logical thing to do.
Tony: Did you go to law school right out of
college or did you work for awhile?
Tony: Why did you join the District
Attorneyís office instead of doing something else?
STEVE: 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.
Tony: Why did you decide to run for DA?
STEVE: 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 í97 and í98. So in 1999 I decided to do it.
Tony: How did you raise the money?
STEVE: 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 ďmeet and greetsĒ 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 youíre
having very large events, hugely attended.
Tony: So it was grass roots?
STEVE: Pretty much grass roots, yes.
Tony: How much did it cost?
STEVE: The first campaign the primary cost me
in the low $400,000 and the general election against Garcetti was about
Tony: Was there any feedback by Garcetti
while you were working there but running against him?
STEVE: Not really. I think he respected my
First Amendment Rights to participate in the democratic process.
Tony: Was there any big turning point in
STEVE: 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. Iíve had the same wife for 36 years. Same
job for 37 years.
Tony: What are your hobbies?
Steve: Hobbies. I have to confess Iím so busy
doing my job and other things I donít have any hobbies per se. I go to
an occasional football game. I donít have a high level of interest in
watching all the games and keeping up. I just like an occasional SC
Tony: Do you read?
Steve: Yes. For pleasure, Wambaugh, James
Ellroy, Michael Connelly, plus an occasional high brow book or political
Tony: How accurate do you find those things,
especially Wambaugh and Connelly who write about the police?
Steve: Those two are particularly atuned to
the realities and true facts of the criminal justice system and police
work in general.
Tony: Have you ever seen Law and Order?
Steve: Not that often, but occasionally yes.
I think itís a very well done drama but not that realistic. Iíve 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 doesnít happen. It seems to be how they finish up most of their
Tony: How about Sam Waterstonís character?
Is he realistic?
Steve: 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.
Tony: So itís not something that you laugh
Steve: No, I donít 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
Tony: Are there any shows that work with the
Steve: Not really. Weíve had many, many
overtures and offers but usually our ethical constraints wonít allow us
to do exactly what they want to do. So we donít 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 donít have a relationship with
Tony: What are the two biggest changes or
innovations that you brought to the DAís Office?
Steve: 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 itís had a tremendous success statistically,
qualitatively and quantitatively. Itís had a very good impact in Los
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. Thatís always a sellout,
500 people or so. We give in-service training.
Tony: Didnít they have forensic science
before you became DA?
Steve: 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. Thatís led to the solving of a number of
Tony: You mean they didnít have any cold
case units before you came in?
Steve: Nope. At that point in time DNA was
just starting to take off. The evidence wasnít 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 DAís to handle old cold cases.
Tony: How many cold cases have been solved
since youíve been in roughly?
Steve: I wouldnít know. Youíd have to drill
down and talk to the various agencies. I know that Torrance has done
some. LAPD and Sheriff have done a lot.
Tony: All because you started it?
Steve: 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
donít take the credit. I just think that a lot of good things came
together and we seized the opportunity.
Tony: What are the two biggest changes or
innovations you want to bring to the Attorney Generalís Office?
Steve: 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 Generalís Office has exclusive
responsibility for pursuing that. I think they need to get in that game
heavily and start protecting the Stateís Medi Cal system from non
traditional organized crime groups.
Tony: What kind of job has Jerry Brown done
as Attorney General?
Steve: OK in some respects. In other areas I
think there were areas for improvement. But Iím not running against
Tony: Speaking of that, what do you think of
your opponentís negative ads against you?
Steve: 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 consultantsí advice to go negative early to try and
Tony: How are they false?
Steve: I have not seen any of them. Until I
do I canít go through in detail. But in general from what Iíve heard
they have taken things out of context, taken otherwise honest
declarations and twisted them into something thatís inaccurate.
Tony: Is there anything that can be done
about these horrible political ads that are actually false, like making
Steve: 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 canít 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.
Tony: What are the two cases of which you
are most proud?
Steve: Bringing back the killer of Deputy
David March. Killerís 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,
Sheriffís 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. Iím talking about a lot of Republicans and Democrats who
just wanted the issue to go away. They didnít want to hear about it any
more but we never gave up, not in the LA County DAís Office. We
eventually prevailed and got the appropriate result. Iím very proud of
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 itís primarily an
LAPD accomplishment. They would not have been able to solve the Grim
Sleeper Case if I hadnít personally urged Jerry Brown to develop a
protocol to use what they call ďpartial match familial searchĒ 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 Sleeperís arrest.