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AUGUST 24, 2016

Jewelry, wine, clothing and sports tickets: D.A. collects more than $10,000 worth of gifts

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey at a press conference at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles on June 29, 2015. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Adam Elmahrek

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has accepted more than 0,000 worth of gifts over the last four years from criminal defense attorneys, police unions, business owners, prosecutors in her office and others who could have an interest in influencing her decisions as one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in the county, according to state records.

The gifts include necklaces and a pearl box, sporting event tickets, bottles of wine, clothing and a glass rose dipped in 24-carat gold, the records show.

A Los Angeles Times review of state disclosure records found that Lacey’s gift taking exceeded the amount disclosed over the same time period by the district attorneys of other large California jurisdictions, including Orange County, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino. San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón disclosed more than 8,000 worth of gifts, but about 7,000 was for travel payments from mostly nonprofit organizations for speaking and panel events.  

The state’s political ethics law allows public officials to accept gifts totaling 60 from any single source in a calendar year, but requires officials to disclose the gifts on public forms known as statements of economic interest. In Lacey’s case, the forms reveal dozens of gifts over the last three years.

Still, some experts in government and legal ethics say Lacey’s gift taking creates potential conflict-of-interest issues and could give the appearance that her office might be unduly influenced on prosecutions and promotions. 

Bruce Green, director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham Law School, said district attorneys should avoid accepting gifts from employees, defense attorneys and business executives within their jurisdictions. 

“Public officials are supposed to be disinterested, but prosecutors in particular are supposed to be disinterested,” Green said. “They have extraordinary power to destroy people’s lives. And you want them to act in a disinterested way, not with an eye toward profiting.”

Lacey declined a request to be interviewed. But the district attorney’s office emailed a statement emphasizing her commitment to government transparency. It also pointed out that the vast majority of prosecutors who received promotions had not given her any gifts. Gifts such as chocolates and edible food arrangements were distributed to employees, according to a spokeswoman.

“I have complied with the law and will continue to comply with the law,” Lacey said in the statement.

Lacey disclosed nearly ,000 worth of gifts in 2012, the year she successfully ran for office. She then accepted gifts valued at ,000 in 2013, her first year on the job. She reported taking more than ,000 worth of gifts in 2014, and last year. 

Lacey isn’t the first district attorney, or even the first high-ranking elected official, to draw attention for accepting pricey gifts. A Times review of disclosure forms filed by county department heads dating to 2010 found that top law enforcement officials — specifically Lacey, former Sheriff Lee Baca and former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley — had reported more gifts than any other county department head.

The Times in 2011 found that Baca had accepted more than 20,000 worth of gifts between 1998 and 2010. The gifts included rounds of golf, free meals, liquor, and tickets to sporting events. His benefactors included actor Michael Douglas, the government of Saudi Arabia, and at least two felons. A real estate magnate gave Baca wine and liquor, and the former sheriff launched a criminal investigation on his behalf that was referred to by deputies as a “Sheriff Baca Special Request.”

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa agreed to pay 2,000 in state fines under an agreement with the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the city Ethics Commission after it was found that he had not disclosed free tickets to 34 events, including the Academy Awards, Lakers basketball games and the music reality TV show “American Idol.” Villaraigosa argued that he was performing ceremonial duties at these events and didn’t know that he had to disclose the tickets.

Cooley, Lacey’s predecessor and political benefactor, was criticized for accepting gifts during his unsuccessful 2010 run for state attorney general. Like Lacey, he had taken clothing, sporting event tickets and wine — but also cigars, tequila and cologne — from an array of prominent people around town.

Cooley dismissed criticism of his acceptance of gifts as a non-story conjured up by his “unworthy opponent” in the attorney general’s race, Kamala Harris, who went on to defeat him in the election. He said as long as it’s disclosed and under the legal limit, there’s nothing wrong with a district attorney accepting gifts, regardless of the source. He defended Lacey as someone whom he admires for “her ethics and her integrity.” And he was also critical of ethics experts who say district attorneys should avoid accepting gifts.

“A lot of these people are armchair academics who have never been in the game,” Cooley said. “They just have opinions. And quite frankly, a lot of them can’t be relied upon.”

According to state records, Lacey has accepted gifts from foreign dignitaries, a Los Angeles Times executive, and the head of a local translation services company. The president of Victoria Caro Associates Inc. gave Lacey a 00 broach and a “gift set” worth 73. The company provides translation services to the district attorney’s office, a spokeswoman said.

Green said that accepting gifts from companies and their executives could compromise her office.

“What’s going to happen when they call up and say one of our employees embezzled or did something wrong? Are they going to get more favorable treatment than other companies?” Green asked.

Experts also point out that Lacey’s acceptance of gifts from defense attorneys can create perception issues.

For example, criminal defense attorney Michael Goldstein advertises on his website a multitude of cases where he negotiated plea bargains and persuaded prosecutors to dismiss charges. Goldstein gave Cooley tickets to Lakers games. And, just a few days before Lacey was elected district attorney, Goldstein gave her 00 worth of sporting event tickets. Around Christmas2014, he gave her pastries worth 00.

There is no evidence that Goldstein has received any special treatment from the district attorney’s office. But Green said this is a situation that could create the appearance of a conflict of interest for Lacey. Some people, Green said, might wonder whether these types of gifts influenced the way her office dealt with Goldstein and his clients.

Goldstein could not be reached for comment.

Lacey has received nine gifts from staffers in her office, several of whom had received promotions. The glass rose coated in pure gold, which including a glass vase totaled 14, came from Adewale Oduye, a deputy district attorney who had been promoted before giving Lacey the gift. Other gifts from staffers included a 00 St. John knit sweater, a 50 gift certificate to Burke Williams, a 20 gift basket containing a pearl box and bracelet, a figurine and a fruit basket, and 0 worth of sporting event tickets.

Oduye said he gave Lacey the rose and vase because when he was just a line prosecutor she always remembered his name, and that impressed him. He said his entire graduating class was promoted at the same time, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about favoritism. He also said the gift was worth 7, not the 14 disclosed by Lacey.

Karol Boloorchi, a prosecutor whom Lacey promoted to head of the white collar crime division, said that before Lacey was elected district attorney, Boloorchi had broken her left shoulder, and Lacey showed an “extreme act of kindness” by sharing some loose-fitting clothes that would be easier for Boloorchi to wear. To show her appreciation to Lacey, Boloorchi purchased the 00 sweater.

And Boloorchi said she gave Lacey the Burke Williams gift certificate after she was allowed to take time off during an illness. Burke Williams gift certificates are common around the office, Boloorchi said.

“[Lacey] is a very kind and generous person,” Boloorchi said. “She cares about all the people that work for her.”

Some of the gift givers explained the gifts as tokens of appreciation for favors Lacey had done for them.

The public employee labor law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore gave Lacey a Mont Blanc Classique pen after Lacey spoke at a labor and employment law conference the firm had organized. Lacey had turned down a speaking fee, and the firm wanted to show its appreciation, managing partner Scott Tiedemann said.

Lacey disclosed that the pen was worth 15, but, according to Tiedemann, the total cost was 51, including tax and shipping and handling. Public officials generally are supposed to include taxes and shipping and handling in determining the value of gifts reported, a spokesman with the state Fair Political Practices Commission said.

It’s a minor but important discrepancy. The state gift limit in 2014, when the pen was disclosed, was 40.

In response to a Times inquiry about the difference, a spokeswoman for Lacey acknowledged a “miscalculation” in reporting the value of the gift and said that Lacey made a partial refund — writing a check to Liebert Cassidy Whitmore for 1.31.



NUMBER 68 - APRIL 26, 2019