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Cooley Took Campaign Donations from Oil Firm Prosecuted by D.A.'s Office

LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEC records suggest that the contributions to his attorney general's campaign played no role in how prosecutors have handled the case against a company accused of violating state environmental laws.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley accepted $13,000 for his attorney general's election campaign from an oil company while his office was prosecuting the firm for violating state environmental laws, records and interviews show.

Warren E&P Inc., which operates oil wells near the Port of Los Angeles, donated the maximum amount allowed under state law this year while the district attorney's office was pursuing allegations involving several oil spills in 2007.

The district attorney's office inherited the case from the Los Angeles city attorney's office, which filed criminal charges against Warren in January 2008. The case was handed over to the district attorney's office after the firm's defense lawyer, Carmen Trutanich, was elected city attorney last year.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records suggest that the campaign donations have played no role in how the district attorney's office has handled the case. Reports filed by Warren's parent company show that county prosecutors have agreed to a nearly identical settlement to the one discussed by the city attorney's office before Trutanich took office in July 2009.

Nevertheless, campaign watchdog groups raised questions about Cooley's acceptance of the donations, saying the contributions created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"Any district attorney should have a rule that if his or her office is involved in litigation that he or she should not be receiving contributions from any litigant," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, said Cooley's campaign should return the money.

"This is political ethics 101," Heller said.

In an interview last week, Cooley said he knew nothing about the Warren case and that he trusted his attorneys would handle the matter appropriately.

"I don't know who this entity is and I know nothing about the case, which is exactly how it should be," said Cooley, whose office files more than 60,000 felonies and 100,000 misdemeanors each year. "Not knowing is sometimes the best position to be in."

Cooley's campaign strategist, Kevin Spillane, said there are too many political donors and too many criminal cases for Cooley to keep track of every one.

"He's head of the largest district attorney's office in the nation," Spillane said, "and his style is not to micromanage the office."

The contributions were brought to The Times' attention by campaign aides of San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, who is running against Cooley. The Times independently reviewed Cooley's campaign filings and reviewed additional records and conducted interviews.

The criminal charges against Warren involved four separate incidents that the city attorney's office described as "significant oil spills" between March and November 2007.

Thomas Dahlgren, California land manager at Warren, whose parent company is based in New York, described the spills as minor and said the city attorney's office exaggerated their seriousness.

A year after the criminal charges were filed, Warren's parent company, Warren Resources Inc., submitted a report to the SEC saying the city attorney's office had tentatively agreed to drop the criminal charges in exchange for a civil settlement in which Warren would pay about $100,000.

In June, a judge dismissed the criminal case at the request of the district attorney's office. Since then, prosecutors and Warren have been in talks to finalize the civil settlement. In a report filed with the SEC in August, the company said the settlement would include penalties and fines of about $105,000.

The firm donated $6,500 to Cooley in April and another $6,500 in August. Dahlgren said the contributions to Cooley were unrelated to the litigation. He said he got to know Cooley when both men worked on Trutanich's campaign for city attorney.

"With that kind of friendship and knowledge of what he's accomplished over the years as district attorney, I talked the company into supporting him for attorney general," Dahlgren said.

Assistant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. George Castello, who oversees the environmental law section that is handling the Warren case, said Cooley has had no involvement in the matter. He said the terms of the settlement are in line with the ones that the city attorney's office had discussed with the company.

"I can tell you unequivocally that I never got any calls from the D.A. or his management and nor has the trial deputy," Castello said.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.