LA voters to choose new city attorney

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A newcomer to Los Angeles politics hopes to upset a City Hall insider in Tuesday's election for city attorney. Defense lawyer Carmen Trutanich faces Westside City Councilman Jack Weiss in a race the legal community is closely watching. The city attorney plays a key role in L.A., issuing legal advice to elected officials and departments and a range of issues from development to policing and representing the city in legal matters. The job can also be a stepping stone to higher office. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: Much of this campaign has focused on Carmen Trutanich's client list. Here's City Councilman Jack Weiss:

Jack Weiss: What are they? A rogue's nest of gun organizations, polluters, you name it. Those are the folks he's proud of.

Stoltze: Trutanich won't reveal who all of his clients are – he says he wants to maintain confidentiality. He acknowledges he's spent much of his career representing small companies accused of violating pollution laws. He says he's always helped them clean up their act first.

Carmen Trutanich: My record in defending is clear: one, bring the company into compliance. Ya know I wasn't there whenever their actions took place. But whenever I got there, their actions stopped.

Stoltze: Fifty-seven-year-old Trutanich, who's the son of a San Pedro cannery worker, points out that he was a deputy district attorney early in his career. He prosecuted gangsters – and polluters. Trutanich promises to aggressively enforce environmental laws if he's elected city attorney. He also says he'll take a "reasonable" approach.

Trutanich: If you have a one-off violation and you're a company that otherwise has a great environmental record, you get a shot to come in and tell me why we shouldn't file criminal charges against you and what you're going to do to ensure further compliance, and maybe enter into a consent decree.

Stoltze: Councilman Weiss derides Trutanich's approach.

Weiss: The only reason people comply with environmental laws in my view is because they are deterred from breaking them because of the threat of punishment. If the only thing that happens to you when you get caught in the Trutanich regime is you're told to comply, then the polluters of L.A. will have no incentive to comply.

Stoltze: Forty-four-year-old Weiss has garnered endorsements from several environmental groups. Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, also paints Trutanich as soft on gun laws because his law partner represents the National Rifle Association.

Trutanich, who's backed by the NRA, says he supports current gun laws. He says a Weiss-sponsored city gun ordinance signed into law last year was mostly "window-dressing."

Trutanich: Look, we have the most pervasive gun laws in this nation. And you couple that with what we have in California and they are very, very strong. We need to enforce them.

Stoltze: Trutanich says District Attorney Steve Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca, and the union that represents LAPD officers wouldn't be backing him if he were soft on guns. The union's spent $700,000 on Trutanich political ads. Jim Bell is a former DA investigator who worked with him in the 1980s. Bell, who supports Trutanich, was a hard-driving prosecutor.

Jim Bell: So at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, if he had a tip or if I developed something, calling him and letting him know what I found out.
Stoltze: Would he do that? Would he call in the middle of the night?
Bell: Sometimes. Sometimes he'd call me and say "What'd you find out?" So he was very aggressive that way.

Stoltze: Police Chief Bill Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa support Weiss, who's carried their agenda at City Council as chair of the public safety committee. Labor unions and developers are among his biggest backers.

Longtime associates of the Beverly Hills High School graduate say he's been ambitious for as long as they've known him. Former police commissioner Raquelle de la Rocha:

Raquelle de la Rocha: I first met Jack when I was a professor at UCLA and he was a very rising star among his class of over 300 students, and it was clear he was on the path to great things.

Weiss: My record is clear, in terms of supporting public safety, helping Chief Bratton increase the size of the police department, helping eliminate the rape kit backlog, leading the city's anti-terrorism efforts.

Stoltze: Trutanich says he'd bring a new independence to the city attorney's office.

Trutanich: I'm not a politician, I don't talk like a politician, I don't act like a politician. I'm gonna be a lawyer. That's who I've been and that's what I'm gonna be. And I'm going to continue to be a lawyer.

Stoltze: If he manages to beat Weiss, he'd be a lawyer who heads one of the biggest municipal law offices in the country.