California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. (Courtesy State of California Department of Justice)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. (Courtesy State of California Department of Justice)

AG Becerra muffs chance to crack down on local government corruption

California’s new attorney general, Xavier Becerra, was given a golden opportunity Monday to change his department’s passive attitude toward governmental corruption.

He muffed it.

The occasion was Becerra’s appearance before the Sacramento Press Club, during which he stressed protecting poor and powerless Californians — “people like my parents,” as he put it — whether it be from Donald Trump or charity scammers, and boasted of heading the state’s “largest law enforcement agency.”

If so, he was asked (by yours truly), shouldn’t his Department of Justice be doing more to protect poor and powerless Californians from the endemic corruption that afflicts many of their communities, especially in Southern California?

The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff wrote a remarkable article recently about what Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon calls the “corridor of corruption” in small, mostly poor and mostly immigrant communities in southeastern Los Angeles County.

More than dozen officials in cities such as Bell, Cudahy, South Gate and Lynwood have been convicted of corruption so far this century and some political figures from the nearby San Gabriel Valley have also been nailed.

It’s just the tip of the iceberg and that region is not alone. A similar phenomenon exists just to the east in the “Inland Empire” — a spate of investigations, charges and convictions in similarly poor communities, in regional agencies and in county governments.

A trial has been underway for weeks in the so-called “Colonies” bribery scandal involving several former San Bernardino County officials. It was brought by local prosecutors although Jerry Brown, then the attorney general and running for governor, appeared at the 2010 news conference announcing the charges and called it “the biggest corruption scandal in San Bernardino County, if not the state’s, history.”

As Koseff pointed out in his article, the residents of the “corridor of corruption” communities are often immigrants who lack sophistication, local civic organizations are weak, and involvement in local politics is scant, thus allowing crooks to easily occupy and exploit positions of power.

The federal Department of Justice has handled many of the cases, but others were brought by local prosecutors.

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who very narrowly lost a bid for attorney general in 2010, was especially aggressive on pursuing corrupt local officials.

The state Department of Justice has been noticeably missing from action on corruption, so Becerra’s appearance Monday before the Press Club was a chance to reverse that curious reluctance.

However, while promising aggressive action on other fronts, such as opposing Trump on immigration, Becerra continued the institutional passivity on corruption. He said the federal government is better equipped to deal with the issue and added, “We defer to the locals. I don’t have the resources to do what the locals should be doing.”

That’s pretty weak, considering that the true victims of local corruption are the very people Becerra says he wants to help.

Dan Walters is a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee.

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