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Cooley's donations raise questions about the line between fundraising and probes

September 6, 2010 |  7:26 pm

Rene Cota was stunned when he searched the Internet and came across a $1,500 campaign contribution reported recently by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who is running for state attorney general.

The shocker, he said, was the donor — David Perez of Valley Vista Services in the City of Industry.

For about a year, Perez, who is also the mayor of the City of Industry and whose family owns the Valley Vista trash hauling firm, has been the focus of an inquiry by Cooley's office into his private business ties to City Hall. The ongoing probe, apparently examining multimillion-dollar refuse collection and landscaping maintenance contracts, began after Cota filed a complaint.

When the city shut down his bar for alleged code violations, Cota began looking into Industry's close-knit political culture — there are fewer than 100 registered voters, and many are related to one another or working for the city.

"It disheartens me," said the former Anaheim police officer. It is "obviously unethical if he's taking contributions from persons or entities" under scrutiny by Cooley's office, he said. "It definitely shakes my confidence in the legal system."

Cooley's top anti-corruption deputy says there is no connection between campaign money and the district attorney's investigation or prosecution of public officials.

But the donation highlights a tricky choice for an elected prosecutor like Cooley. Where does he draw the line on taking money from people who could figure in an investigation?

The question has also arisen in Bell Gardens. Cooley's campaign accepted $13,000 from City Manager Steve Simonian, a longtime friend and former aide, during and immediately after an inquiry involving two of Simonian's bosses on the City Council.

Cooley's campaign spokesman, Kevin Spillane, said the prosecutor's ethical line is clearly drawn: Political fundraising has no influence on the work of the district attorney's office. Suggesting otherwise is "ridiculous and it's insulting," he said. Cooley doesn't track all the donations his campaigns have raised, he said.

Read the full story here.

-- Rich Connell