California Assembly candidate Jim Cooper slams jail allegations

With Tuesday’s election looming, California Assembly candidate Jim Cooper is pushing back against mailers linking him to a legal settlement involving strip searches at the Sacramento County jail.

Funded by an independent committee called Golden State Leadership Fund PAC that is backing Cooper’s opponent, Sacramento City Councilman Darrell Fong, the mailer reprises a charge that Fong’s campaign made in a previous mailer – that when Cooper oversaw the Sacramento County jail, women were strip searched, including some pregnant women, and made to dance naked.

The claim comes from a 2004 Sacramento Bee story detailing the outcome of a class-action lawsuit settlement in which Sacramento County agreed to compensate a number of people who had been searched at the jail. Cooper argues that the ad distorts the record because he took over the jail after the lawsuit had already been filed.

“All those claims that are mentioned in the story and mailers happened before I even came there,” Cooper said in an interview. “I was sent there for the sole purpose of straightening some of those issues out prior to my arrival.”

Former Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, wrote an an open letter this week making the same argument and crediting Cooper with controlling fallout from the lawsuit.

“I specifically picked Jim to be commander of the jail as a ‘problem solver’ with instructions to clean it up in regards to the strip search matter,” Blanas wrote. “Jim spent the next year and a half actively engaged in developing policies that protected the privacy of individuals who were taken into custody, as well as groups of inmates who returned to custody from daily court appearances.”

In March 2000, seven activists were arrested for protesting a state Board of Forestry meeting and taken to the jail. They contended they were strip searched in embarrassing fashion and in March 2001 filed a class-action lawsuit seeking damages.

The ensuing legal battle culminated in the plaintiffs and the county negotiating a multimillion-dollar settlement, incorporating the initial lawsuit and a similar one filed in federal court, that covered a greatly expanded pool of people who were searched at the jail between March 2000 and June 2003.

While that time frame overlaps with Cooper’s tenure as jail commander, a position he served in from September 2001 to June 2003, the Elk Grove City Council member’s campaign argues that Cooper bore no responsibility for the alleged violations since since the initial lawsuit was filed before he arrived.

Cooper, who remains a sheriff’s captain, was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. But the attorney who headed the case for the plaintiffs, Mark Merin, argued that searches encompassed by the settlement continued under Cooper’s tenure, including those involving what a settlement agreement called extenuating factors making the searches more “damaging.”

The attorney who represented Sacramento County in the lawsuit challenged Merin’s version of events. He echoed Cooper’s campaign in noting that the lawsuit igniting the proceedings came before Cooper and that the candidate was hired “for the purpose of problem solving the issues at the jail.”

“I do not recall there being any evidence that those initial allegations that were put into the complaint before Cooper took over that jail happened after he took over,” Terence Cassidy said.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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