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Race Pits Dream Prosecutor Against S.F.'s Nightmare DA

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I don't understand why San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris wants to be California's next attorney general. Then again, it's hard to understand why she even ran for DA -- other than because she has a yen for elective office.

She hasn't been an aggressive prosecutor. She hasn't been a competent administrator. She seems more interested in advancing liberal causes than putting bad guys behind bars.

It is a sad testament to the Democratic Party that Harris is its chosen nominee to run against Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a consummate lawman whose tenure could serve as a model for both toughness and fairness.

Consider her record. To start, Harris was in charge when her office aided and abetted in a dangerous misinterpretation of the city's 1989 sanctuary city law. City officials refused to notify federal immigration officials when police arrested juvenile offenders -- or offenders who claimed to be juveniles -- on felony charges.

Under her watch (for lack of a better word), the city flew drug offenders to Honduras. When federal authorities stopped this practice in 2008, the city sent eight Hondurans who had been convicted to group homes, from which they escaped.

One Sunday afternoon in June 2008, San Franciscan Tony Bologna, 48, was driving home with his sons, Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16. All three were shot dead. Police charged Edwin Ramos, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who had been arrested for several felonies as a youth but apparently benefited from the city's liberal sanctuary policy.

Of course, many San Franciscans were appalled. But did Harris then comb through her files to make sure that no similar cases existed? Apparently not. A month after the triple slaying, police arrested an illegal immigrant enrolled in a Harris job-training program for offenders after he snatched a woman's purse.

That's right, she had an illegal immigrant who pleaded guilty to a drug felony enrolled in a job-training program -- even though he could not legally get a job. "We realized that we had not in the design of 'Back on Track' made provisions for screening that," Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board.

Now Harris has incurred the wrath of the city's far left in supporting a federal program that requires communities to send fingerprints of anyone booked into jail. But when the Los Angeles Times reported the purse-snatching story in June 2009, Harris said that she had never asked and had not learned how many illegal immigrants were in the program.

No surprise, it also was under her watch that the police department drug-lab scandal erupted. Allegations that a former lab technician stole cocaine from the lab caused hundreds of drug cases to be dismissed.

Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo determined that prosecutors "at the highest levels of the district attorney's office knew that (Deborah) Madden was not a dependable witness at trial and there were serious concerns regarding the crime lab."

After all the scandals that have hit California law enforcement, Harris had no formal policy for disclosing damaging material about police witnesses.

By contrast, Cooley -- lawman that he is -- when newly elected to the job, implemented the state's first police misconduct disclosure policy in 2002.

Why hadn't Harris followed suit? "I'm not offering any excuses," Harris told the Chronicle's Jaxon Van Derbeken. "We did not have a formal, written policy. My predecessor didn't have one, either. Most district attorneys don't."

Local Democrats love to tell me that they'd vote for a Republican if only they had the chance to support someone who is moderate, not an ideologue.

Well, meet Steve Cooley. He's a Republican who successfully worked across party lines in liberal Los Angeles County. He's a pro-enforcement prosecutor who set a policy to curb police abuses. He's tough, yet he incurred the wrath of Republican opponents who called him soft on crime because of his implementation of California's "three strikes" law. Prosecutors in his office can charge a defendant under "three strikes" for a nonviolent offense, but first they have to get a supervisor's permission.

"He was drafted by law enforcement and others who came to him repeatedly, and he turned them down," Cooley consultant Kevin Spillane told me. "The job was too important to let (Harris) take over the position."

And why did these gray beards push Cooley to run? Simple. Unlike Harris, Cooley is competent.

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