The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is not entitled to qualified immunity from a retaliation claim filed by a deputy DA who spoke publicly about problems tied to an investigation of a failed $200 million school construction project.
David Eng served on a task force to investigate fraud and environmental crimes associated with construction of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Belmont Learning Complex, which was halted in 1999. He was demoted and falsely charged with a misdemeanor relating to the misuse of office computers after concluding, as part of the task force, that no crimes had been committed. Cooley was elected in 2000 on a campaign to prosecute individuals tied to the Belmont project.
The 9th Circuit found that Eng was within his First Amendment rights when he blew the whistle on a task force colleague who had leaked to the IRS that the school district had committed fraud when purchasing the Belmont facility. The panel also found that a lawyer Eng hired to defend him against the misdemeanor charges, Mark Geragos, was within his First Amendment rights to speak about the retaliation against Eng in a 2003 Los Angeles Times article.
The panel held that “the full range of adverse employment action appears to have been a politically-motivated effort to silence Eng, who stood to embarrass Cooley by undermining a central plank in his campaign platform.”