California’s Capitol Talks to Ted Lieu
The fourth in a series of interviews with statewide Democratic candidates who will be attending the Democratic State Convention in Sacramento, April 24 through April 26.
(Assemblyman Ted Lieu, a Torrance Democrat, is in his final two-year term in the lower house. As he tells California’s Capitol, he has been the Assembly’s point person on foreclosure and mortgage issues. The 40-year-old former Torrance City councilman graduated from Stanford in 1991 and got his law degree magna cum laude at Georgetown three years later. His wife, Betty, is a former deputy attorney general.)
CC: What makes you want to be Attorney General?
TL: Many of our major societal changes haven’t come from what Congress did or a state Legislature did. It happened in lawsuits. We were desegregated because of a lawsuit. Countrywide Home Loans has a really good home loan modification. Program. They’re not doing that because they’re good corporate citizens. They have a great loan modification because Jerry Brown as Attorney General sued them. The settlement was to initiate a great home loan modification program. The Attorney General has done more for home foreclosure prevention in California than the entire federal government has been able to do.
The Attorney General sued San Bernardino for not planning for global warming and now they plan for it. On the civil side, you can go after any number of bad actors or not and the kind of Attorney General you have makes a big difference for the state. I would be an activist and advance Democratic ideals.
As the economy continues to worsen crime will continue to increase. This last month we’ve had 57 victims of mass shootings across the United States. We need an Attorney General that can project confidence, can project stability and apply the law as its written who law enforcement also trusts and respects.
CC: That sort of answers this question. Watching races for Attorney General since 1978 some people say the job is California’s Top Cop, lead prosecutor, top litigator. Is none of the above? All of the above?
TL: All of the above. Different attorney generals can emphasize different aspects of the office. It’s very much a policy office. There’s never enough resources to go after every single bad actor so you’re making a lot of decisions about who you’re going to go after and what people you want to protect and why you’re doing this.
The Attorney General as a person doesn’t personally go into court and litigate. But the Attorney General also sponsors legislation, supports legislation and opposes legislation. Again on the civil side, the Attorney General also defends state agencies. To me, that is one place you can have a great deal of influence trying to explain to agencies they need to take the right action in order to avoid bad consequences.
CC: What attracted you to the job?
TL: The ability to protect the vulnerable, to go after bad actors and to ensure the public has safety and confidence in our law enforcement system.
CC: Is there anything the Attorney General can do about California’s seemingly never-ending budget problems?
TL: There are three reasons for our chronic budget deficits. One is we are a massive donor state to Washington D.C. So for every tax dollar we send back there, we get 79 cents back in services. Other states, like South Dakota, get over funded. They get $1.25 back for every dollar. For California, this is a $50 billion problem. So if we didn’t have this imbalance we would have been able to give a tax cut this year – even with a $42 billion budget gap.
The second reason is about 80 percent of our spending is locked in through initiatives people have passed. And, third, we have an extremely volatile revenue system that’s over reliant on personal income tax and corporate taxes. So when times are good we get a boom and when times are bad we have deficits.
One thing the Attorney General can do is bring in funds to state government through lawsuits. Often times, settlements result in large amounts of money coming to the state. That would be a collateral reason (for filing). I wouldn’t bring a lawsuit just because it’s good fiscally for the state.
CC: Not sure how much it costs but it has to be expensive when we parole 120,000 people a year and within two years over 70 percent are back in prison.
TL: It is a sort of downward spiraling problem. Because we have a prison-overcrowding situation we now aren’t doing any of the skills training in prison programs that teach people how to function in society when they leave prison. And then people come back to prison because they have nowhere to go and that increases the over-crowding.
I’m a big supporter of drug courts. If someone is addicted, they should get treated. When revenues are falling off a cliff its extremely difficult to fund the programs we need to help people when they get out of prison. Long-term view is that yes it costs some money now but in the long-term it would help the state save money.
If an inmate works toward a degree then they should get early release credits as an incentive to do such things. Part of the problem – and this is a much larger fix – is I think I we also need to improve our education system. If we did, we’d have less people in prison as well.
CC: One of your opponents is San Francisco’s district attorney. Another is the LA City Attorney. What’s your legal background?
TL: When I was on active duty in the air force I was a military prosecutor so I put people into jail. I prosecuted court marshals and argued in front of juries. I did everything. It’s a federal court where everyone wears uniforms. I’m still a reservist in the Air Force.
In terms of my private experience, I’ve worked in the Munger, Tolles and Olson law firm so I have the civil experience – a whole variety of cases, a slough of civil cases. One third were internal corporate investigations, which I enjoyed. That’s where a corporation hires a law firm and says go in and tell us what’s wrong. And we would go and interview witnesses and advise the board of directors: X, Y and Z happened so you ought to take these actions to respond to it.
While at Munger, Tolles I served on the Los Angeles Rampart Independent Review Panel, which looked at the Rampart scandal at LAPD. It was similar to the (Warren) Christopher Commission. (Created in 1991 in the wake of the Rodney King beating to examine racial bias at the LAPD.) We interviewed a lot of witnesses, wrote a lengthy report and offered a lot of recommendations, most of which the LAPD took.
As a legislator, I’ve taken on some of the most powerful interests in the state Capitol. I went after Wall Street before it was popular to do so. I began criticizing them early on because I was the chair of (the Assembly) Banking (and Finance committee). It became very clear to me a lot of their actions were simply indefensible. The governor vetoed several of my bills but I was happy he signed the California Foreclosure Prevention Act, this year, which I authored. No other bill like this in the nation.
It says, basically, you run a comprehensive foreclosure prevention program like Countrywide voluntarily or we will stick it to you with a 90-day foreclosure moratorium. The (foreclosure) crisis is wrecking our economy. We had over 80,000 foreclosure filings in February. California has one third of the nation’s foreclosures and six of the top 10 metro areas in terms of foreclosures.
The Attorney General has a large role in fraud prevention. And also the Attorney General has an anti-trust division and so not only would I expand the mortgage fraud unit I would also expand the anti-trust unit as well. Having monopolies and businesses that are too big to fail makes absolutely no sense to me in a free market.
CC: Capital punishment?
TL: I support it.
CC: It’s surprising how big a part of the Department of Justice the Division of Law Enforcement is. What would you do with it?
TL: For the most part they do a bang-up job. If I could do anything, I would try at some point, whenever the budget rights itself, to enhance the pay of our Department of Justice personnel. It used to be, 40 or 50 years ago, everyone wanted to go right out of school and work for the Attorney General’s office. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case because of the discrepancy in pay. But the people who work for the Attorney General do get the reward of working for the public.
CC: Any other points on stuff I was too stupid to raise?
TL: I’d like to talk about some of the passions I have. Domestic violence is one issue I would focus on as Attorney General. I authored bill last year, signed by the governor, that at first was a real fight with the realtors and landlords associations but finally we were able to get to a compromise. Lit was a long row to go down but we got it done. The law says if victims of domestic violence can show a temporary restraining order or a police report then the landlord must break their lease. The theory is we don’t want to keep victims of domestic violence trapped in the same place they’re getting abused. Studies show domestic violence occurs at a rate three times higher in rental units. For whatever reason, it happens that way.
Also maybe because I have a child, child sex offenders are something that’s not even zero tolerance, its negative tolerance. I had a law signed my first term that says if you are a convicted child sex offender you cannot work in a setting alone where there are children. And, as I’ve said, I worked on mortgage foreclosure issues for a pretty long time up here.
CC: How’s the campaign going?
TL: We’ve just secured the first major law enforcement endorsement of the campaign. (Los Angeles County) Sheriff Lee Baca.
CC: In your bio, you describe your children as rambunctious.
TL: The older one tries to beat up the younger one. The younger one teases the older one. It’s so loud in the house. It is a joy to have a Brennan and an Austin. Brennan just turned six. He’s going to kindergarten.
CC: He a big T-ball slugger?
TL: It’s a great game. No one knows what they’re doing and everyone wins.
CC: Did you want to say anything about your opponents?
TL: Anyone willing to run statewide should be commended for engaging in a marathon.
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