[ March 29, 2007 Excerpt from the SB INDEPENDENT of "Firing a Federal Prosecutor - The Isla Vista Connection" by Bob Potter, coauthor of "The Campus by the Sea Where the Bank Burned Down," an official account of the 1970 riots in Isla Vista. ]
When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted “mistakes were made” in the firing of eight federal prosecutors, his choice of phrase had an oddly Nixonian ring to it. And with good reason. White House meddling in Justice Department affairs for political reasons was an all-too-familiar story during the Nixon years. One particularly flagrant case comes to mind... And interestingly enough, the triggering events occurred in Isla Vista.
Robert L. Meyer was appointed U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles by President Nixon in May 1970. An active Republican, former campaign manager for U.S. Senator George Murphy, and nominee for the state Assembly, he was immediately faced with several explosive and politically controversial cases involving civil rights violations and alleged police misconduct. These included the “mistake killing” of two Mexican nationals by Los Angeles police officers, the killing of L.A. Times newsman Ruben Salazar during a riot in conjunction with the Chicano Moratorium protests, and finally, widespread charges of gross misbehavior by L.A. County Sheriff’s officers during the June 1970 disorders in Isla Vista.
Despite strong pressure from L.A.’s elected officials, including Mayor Sam Yorty, Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, and Police Chief Edward M. Davis, Meyer’s office pursued these allegations aggressively, convening federal grand juries to investigate the charges. In March 1971, five Los Angeles police officers were indicted by the grand jury, including three on charges stemming from the “mistake killing,” one for abetting a burglary, and one for forcing a female suspect to disrobe. These indictments ignited a huge political furor. In Salazar’s case, a coroner’s inquest ruled the death a homicide, but the police officer escaped prosecution, and no indictments were issued.
It was the Isla Vista cases, however, that brought about Meyer’s downfall. More than 400 reports of police misconduct — including beatings, break-ins, false arrests, and sexual molestation — had been collected from Isla Vista residents. In May 1971, indictments were returned by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles against an unnamed number of law enforcement officers, members of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Special Enforcement Branch, and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. With the indictments still under seal, Pitchess, Yorty, and Chief Davis all spoke out, with the latter warning that “an ill wind is blowing from Isla Vista.” Sheriff Pitchess flew to Washington, D.C. and met on June 3 with Attorney General John Mitchell. Subsequently the indictments were quashed and never issued.
In November 1971, Meyer was asked to resign by Assistant Attorney General L. Patrick Gray, acting on instructions from Attorney General Mitchell. “He told me they wanted my resignation, effective January 1,” Meyer recalled, “and that I could have it the easy way, or the hard way.” Meyer resigned his position and died of a heart attack a year later, at the age of 49. After leaving office, Meyer said he had been criticized as a “moderate” or “liberal,” rather than a “true conservative.” Many of his policies did not jibe with what his superiors wanted, but the big issue was “a philosophical area epitomized by the civil rights cases” (L.A. Times, Nov. 15, 1972).
Despite all the evidence, the accused L.A. and Santa Barbara sheriffs’ officers were never prosecuted. Mitchell and Gray, for their part, would go on to become notorious figures in the Watergate scandal. Gray, briefly appointed J. Edgar Hoover’s successor at the FBI, was revealed to have destroyed evidence from Howard Hunt’s safe and was indicted for illegal break-ins, though he escaped conviction. Mitchell became the first U.S. Attorney General to be convicted of illegal activities and sent to prison.
Their role in firing a fearless and nonpartisan U.S. attorney in Los Angeles is barely remembered today. But as we contemplate the current politicization of the attorney general’s office, it is worth remembering that quashing legitimate investigations is only a step away from instigating systematic injustice. That is the road the Bush administration, in its tottering final years, may find too tempting to resist.
History suggests the time to investigate thoroughly and clean house at the Justice Department is now.
Full Text available at the SB INDEPENDENT:
Firing a Federal Prosecutor