The Democrat accuses her rival of disbanding the district attorney’s environmental crimes unit to shut down a probe of a Cooley campaign contributor. Cooley denies the charge and says he has a better record of prosecuting environmental crimes than Harris.

By Phil Willon and Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
October 15, 2010

The political attacks are sharpening in the race for California attorney general as election day nears and interest in the campaign rises among voters and free-spending outside interest groups.

Democratic nominee Kamala Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, on Thursday amped up her attacks on the environmental record of GOP rival Steve Cooley, Los Angeles County district attorney. She accused Cooley of being in the pocket of local developers and Texas oil companies, and continued to cast herself as the green candidate in the race.

Meanwhile, police organizations have raised $1 million for independent expenditure campaigns supporting Cooley. The California Statewide Law Enforcement Assn. has dropped $460,000 into a committee to air campaign radio ads; the Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs Assn. is spending $288,000 on Cooley’s behalf; and an additional $212,000 is coming from the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California.

One ad by the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, which has aired in Northern California, takes an indirect shot at Harris for her 2004 decision not to seek the death penalty against a man who killed San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza. Although she is personally opposed to capital punishment, Harris said that as attorney general her office would continue to vigorously defend death penalty convictions on appeal.

“Cooley has much more experience as a D.A. and as a prosecutor,” said Ron Cottingham, the organization’s president. “He also prosecutes the death penalty. He doesn’t shove it aside because of any philosophical differences.”

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Harris ripped Cooley for failing to take a position on Proposition 23, which would roll back California’s landmark greenhouse gas restrictions and is strongly backed by two Texas oil companies. Cooley said he would remain neutral on voter initiatives because, as attorney general, he might be forced to defend them in court. He makes an exception for propositions that play a role in public safety, however, which Harris calls a political dodge.

Harris also accused her opponent of disbanding his environmental crimes unit after prosecutors starting investigating one of his campaign contributors — a charge that Cooley has said is “absolutely 100% false.”

The allegations by the Harris campaign, also aired in a television ad released last week, stem from an April 2003 Los Angeles Times report about Cooley combining his environmental crimes division and consumer protection division, and dismissing a deputy who was investigating the politically influential developer Newhall Land & Farming Co. for allegedly destroying an endangered San Fernando Valley spineflower.

Harris argued that Cooley’s decision to disband the separate environmental unit sent a clear message that prosecuting environmental crimes was not a priority: “When you create a unit to focus on a specific kind of crime, you do a better job…you cultivate expertise.”

Cooley said that he combined the units to improve the management of environmental crimes and that the unit is “robust.” He said he has a more successful record of prosecuting environmental crimes than Harris and cited a number of environmental cases he has brought, including ones against well-known defendants such as Target Inc., Wal-Mart Inc. and Home Depot USA Inc.

As for the Newhall case, Cooley said the deputy was transferred because he had “screwed up the case” and was seeking search warrants that were overly broad and illegal. He denied the transfer was retaliatory and said another prosecutor was assigned to the investigation.

The criminal investigation eventually was dropped in exchange for the firm’s promise to set aside a 64-acre preserve for an endangered plant that the company allegedly destroyed to clear the way for a 22,000-home development. Cooley said that, at the time, he had recused himself from involvement in the case because members of the firm had been past donors to his campaigns.

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