State drug agents push Jerry Brown to back off cuts

Published: Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A

An embattled state union is fighting to save hundreds of state law enforcement jobs that lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown say must fall under the budget ax.

The California Statewide Law Enforcement Association says the $36 million cut would compromise public safety by eliminating 170 special agents and 30 support staff members who fight drug trafficking gangs and conduct complex criminal investigations.

The CSLEA is the same union that played a prominent role in an embarrassing gaffe by Brown's 2010 campaign, and there's some suspicion that Democrats Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris are settling scores. Last year CSLEA supported GOP candidate Meg Whitman for governor and Republican Steve Cooley for attorney general.

Critics of the cuts won't talk publicly about the possibility of a political vendetta playing out a year after the election.

"That's a good question," said Mike Loyd, president of the Association of Special Agents, a CSLEA subset. "There's been a lot of finger pointing. … I'm not sure who to believe any more."

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the notion that the cuts were the governor's revenge against the union is "baseless" and put the blame on Republicans who refused Brown's proposal to put a series of tax measures before voters.

The governor didn't propose the cuts in his draft budgets, Palmer noted, but the administration "made it clear in the May revision summary what the consequences would be if we had to get to an all-cuts scenario."

GOP Assemblyman Dan Logue of Linda said the Department of Justice budget cuts are "a symptom of a much larger problem" and not Republican intransigence on taxes. Republicans were willing to support a tax initiative, Logue said Friday, but only if Brown also had been willing to put a government spending cap and business-friendly regulation reforms on the same ballot.

The cuts will fall heavily on special agents in the department's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, which works with state, local and federal law enforcement on drug cases and complex investigations.

The bureau also coordinates 52 regional task forces that orchestrate joint city and county crime-fighting efforts. The budget cuts threaten to wipe out 34 of the task forces, with the remaining 18 operating with federal money, said Larry Wallace, chief of the department's Division of Law Enforcement.

Yolo County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Lance Faille said officials are trying to figure out what they'll do if the state no longer provides leadership and money for the Yolo County Narcotic Enforcement Team.

"Right now, all the agencies are trying come up with a plan to continue with the task force," Faille said. "We hope so, but we just don't know yet."

The bureau was established in 1927. Its agents have been involved in several high-profile cases, including the arrest of Scott Peterson, who murdered his pregnant wife in 2002, and the 2007 death of former Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith.

Budget cutters for years have brought out their blades for the bureau. In a 1995 review, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office suggested the state should slash its funding because it "duplicates local law enforcement function."

As attorney general two years ago, Brown criticized a plan from legislative Democrats to cut the narcotics bureau budget by one-third to help close a $24 billion budget gap. Brown called the plan "a terrible budgetary decision" that wrongly targeted "some of the best-trained agents in the world."

The measure was turned back, but CSLEA President Alan Barcelona said publicly that he thought Brown didn't fight for the money.

"The funding was restored only when the special agents themselves, backed by a CSLEA media blitz, had to take time away from fighting drug cartels to walk the halls of the State Capitol to plead their case," the union told members in a 2010 letter explaining the endorsement of Whitman.

Last fall, when it looked like the gubernatorial election was a tossup, Brown was caught on a telephone voice mail message criticizing CSLEA for the Whitman endorsement and referring to Barcelona as "not one of our stalwart officers, if you want my opinion."

In that same recording, an unidentified Brown aide suggested running ads calling Whitman a "whore" for agreeing to shield public safety pensions in exchange for law enforcement union endorsements.

Now, the agents have launched a campaign on Facebook to highlight the $36 million in budget cuts set for the coming fiscal year that are coming on top of about $35 million lopped off in the current budget.

They hope to do what Harris hasn't been able to so far: persuade Brown to restore some of the money in the January draft of his 2012-13 budget or give the attorney general flexibility to spread the pain instead of targeting specific programs.

"We're talking about laying off sworn officers," Wallace said. "It's definitely a threat to public safety."

Harris has said she's been fighting the cuts.

"It was our goal that by November 1, 2011, the Governor's Office would commit to restore funding for DLE in his 2012-2013 proposed budget to the Legislature," Harris wrote in a Nov. 2 department email obtained by The Bee. "Unfortunately, that did not happen."

But, she wrote, "I refuse to give up."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz

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