Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican who has based his campaign for state attorney general in part on his record of fighting public corruption, has taken thousands of dollars in gifts from prominent people over a period of nine years.
The gifts - including nearly $1,600 worth of tickets to Lakers games, almost $1,600 in tickets to Hollywood Bowl events, and hundreds of dollars worth of scotch, wine and cigars - are not illegal under state law, but critics say they could pose a political problem for the candidate.
Cooley's campaign says many of the generous gifts are from longtime personal friends. But public records show many of those people are also prominent figures in the criminal justice community, including current and former judges who have worked with Cooley. Other gifts are from high-profile business executives in Los Angeles and subordinates in the district attorney's office.
Good government groups say the gifts violate the spirit of laws aimed at avoiding even the appearance of undue influence and fly in the face of Cooley's anti-corruption platform.
"Just because it's legal and reported doesn't mean it's a good idea," said Santa Clara University ethics fellow Judy Nadler.
Nadler, a former Santa Clara mayor, said the gifts are particularly problematic for a prosecutor whose job has the potential to intersect with virtually anyone who steps foot in Los Angeles County.
"His is a position that demands a great deal of public trust, and can you feel that the elected district attorney, having taken those gifts, can in fact be impartial in an investigation?" she said. "Everyone in public office gives up a little something, but I think people in a position such as being a prosecutor, their responsibility is so great, and the impact they have on individuals and organizations is so great ... they have to maintain impartiality. "
Cooley's campaign defended the gifts, saying most are from friends that he has known for years, not from people with business in front of the prosecutor.
"The bottom line is that he reports everything and that we are talking about someone whose integrity is beyond question," said Cooley's political consultant, Kevin Spillane. "You don't have people who are lobbying the district attorney on (work) issues, these are personal relationships.
"He and wife have a lot of friends, and that's what you're seeing, him taking gifts from close personal friends."
His Democratic opponent sees things differently. Deb Mesloh, a spokeswoman for San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, said the gifts raise questions about Cooley's ethics.
Harris, San Francisco's top prosecutor since 2004, has only declared a handful of gifts in the six years she has been district attorney, and most of it was travel funds related to an Aspen Institute fellowship, which is given to elected officials seen as emerging political leaders.
"Cooley has made his pursuit of public corruption cases one of the cornerstones of his campaign for attorney general, yet his own record is one of questionable ethics," Mesloh said. "People want as top cop someone who follows both the letter and spirit of the law, and I think the record demonstrates that he has not done that."
Within the law
State law caps the value of gifts from any individual to an elected official at $420 a year, and those gifts must be logged and reported each year. All of Cooley's gifts fall within that limit, based on what he reported. Many names appear numerous times since 2000, when Cooley was elected district attorney.
Some of the largest gift-givers were:
-- Inger Amour Ong, the wife of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Tomson Ong. She has given Cooley more than $1,000 in tickets to University of Southern California sporting events over the past decade and $175 tickets to the 2005 Rose Bowl Championship.
-- Michael Goldstein, a Los Angeles lawyer, has given Cooley tickets to multiple Lakers games, including the 2003 playoffs and 2009 semifinals.
-- Armand Arabian, a former California Supreme Court justice, has given Cooley about $770 worth of Hollywood Bowl tickets. Arabian now works as a legal mediator in Los Angeles and sits on the city's Industrial Development Authority Board.
-- Michael Lombardi, a Los Angeles real estate developer, flew Cooley in 2005 from Chicago to Indiana for a USC game against Notre Dame. He has also given the prosecutor tickets to other USC games and an autographed football.
-- Cooley accepted gifts in 2008 from two lawyers who became judges that year: Thomas Rubinson gave a $200 gift certificate to Spago restaurant; Bernie LaForteza gave him 20 cigars worth $100.
-- Car dealer Jason Ghanem gave $150 worth of tequila and cologne in 2008 and a $169 watch in 2009.
"Basically these are not people that interact with the district attorney's office, except theoretically some of the judges - and some of those are former deputy district attorneys," Spillane said. "It's not like a state legislator getting box seats from ARCO or something like that."
UC San Francisco political science professor Corey Cook said there's a difference between taking gifts from longtime friends as opposed to lobbyists, but that voters may not care about the distinction.
"There is a lot of voter anger," he said. "It does tap into voters' legitimate concerns about ethics and questions about who political figures are speaking for."
Cooley has won a number of convictions against politicians who violated campaign finance and other laws. For example, this year, he charged the mayor of La Puente with perjury for failing to report contributions and expenditures related to his 2009 campaign. Former Mayor Louie Lujan pleaded guilty and is now barred from ever holding public office again.
Investigation of mayor
Cooley's office is also investigating Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for not reporting free tickets he received to sporting events, concerts and awards shows.
He's also involved in a probe focused on the city of Bell, where city officials' exorbitant salaries were recently detailed in media reports.
Cooley has run into campaign finance problems before. In 2003, he had to return thousands of dollars in illegal contributions from registered lobbyists. At the time, Cooley said he was unaware that the law forbade such contributions.
Cooley also spent $1,100 in 2004 from an "officeholder account" - money raised from private donors - to travel to the Bohemian Grove, the secretive, male-only club in Sonoma County.
In 2005, he spent $5,960 in officeholder funds to travel with his wife to Argentina; in 2004, the couple spent nearly $3,000 of those funds to visit Thailand.
Spillane said those trips were work-related, cultural exchange visits and that the couple covered their personal expenses. In Argentina, Cooley learned about extradition rules; in Thailand he was consulting with local prosecutors, Spillane said.
"They are all appropriate, legal, fully disclosed, and frankly not that unusual," Spillane said. "It's better to use officeholder accounts than taxpayer funds."
Below are some of the gifts reported by Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley:
-- $1,592 worth of Lakers tickets from 2001 to 2009 from various donors.
-- $2,262 worth of tickets to USC games, travel to those games and paraphernalia, from 2002 to 2009 from various donors.
-- $150 Super Bowl ticket in 2005 from Keith Tobias.
-- $75 Ray Charles concert ticket in 2004 from George Mueller.
-- $150 Super Bowl ticket in 2003 from Keith Tobias.
-- $95 New York Jets ticket in 2007 from Colleen Maloof.
-- $150 Waterford crystal bowl from Darrin Greitzer in 2001.
-- $189.95 bottle of scotch in 2003 from James Ellroy.
-- $135 bottle of wine in 2004 from Joseph Phelps Winery/Silverado Country Club.
-- $200 Johnnie Walker Blue label whiskey in 2005 from Eleanor Hunter.
-- $247 Citizens ECO Watch in 2006 from Jason Ghanem of G&G Auto Enterprises.
-- $200 Spago gift certificate in 2008 from Judge Thomas Rubinson.
-- $100 worth of 20 cigars in 2008 from Judge Bernie LaForteza.
-- $150 Tequila and cologne in 2008 from Ghanem G&G Auto enterprises.
-- $94 dress shirt and tie from Aimen Slaeb, of a Shell service station.
Source: Statement of Economic Interest form