A five-year public corruption investigation of former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata apparently ended Wednesday as a federal prosecutor in Sacramento announced he won't file any charges against the former lawmaker and future Oakland mayoral candidate.
The probe had cast clouds over the entire four years that Perata, D-Oakland, spent at the state Senate's helm, arguably as California state government's most powerful elected Democrat.
Despite investigators having searched Perata's home as well as his son's and his former aide's; having subpoenaed reams of documents from public agencies and private businesses; and having interviewed scores of potential witnesses, the case seems to have drawn to a close without anyone ever being charged with a crime.
Prosecutors in the San Francisco-based Northern District of California several months ago declined to file any charges based on evidence the FBI had brought, but Eastern District Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown then announced he would take the evidence under review.
"Prosecutors from both this office and the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice have reviewed the matter involving Senator Don Perata and have determined not to pursue criminal charges," Brown said in a statement Wednesday. "This office and the Criminal Division in Washington, D.C., worked collaboratively in undertaking this review. Each office reached its decision independently based on our respective analyses of the facts and the law. Beyond that, in accordance with departmental policy, we cannot disclose our deliberative process."
"Our review of this investigation was consistent with the sound exercise of our prosecutorial discretion," Brown said.
A letter received Wednesday by Perata attorney George O'Connell announcing the declination to file charges was signed by Brown and by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer, in charge of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
Perata issued a statement Wednesday saying he's "gratified but not surprised by this decision."
"This is a complete affirmation of everything I've maintained for the last five years — that I've acted appropriately in both my professional life and my career in public service," he said. "This was a full vindication. In the end, this case was closely reviewed by three different levels of the Department of Justice, all of which found no evidence to pursue a single charge. Ultimately, I knew that I had done nothing wrong and the truth would win out."
Better late than never, Perata said, offering his thanks to "the thousands of friends, neighbors and supporters who have unequivocally stood with me and my family during this trying time and gave me strength and encouragement when I needed it most."
The FBI's probe, which became public knowledge in late 2004 just weeks before Perata became the Senate President Pro Tem, seemed to focus on whether Perata took kickbacks or bribes in exchange for official favors, perhaps via a network of family, friends and associates. Records show the businesses of Perata's son and daughter have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by political committees under his direct control, even as Nick Perata and his businesses have been involved in real estate rentals and sales with his father.
Perata's legal defense fund has spent at least about $3.72 million since the start of 2005. He raised some eyebrows late last year by transferring $1.9 million from his Leadership California committee — which existed ostensibly to support or oppose ballot measures and recall efforts as Perata saw fit — into his legal fund. The California Democratic Party has contributed $450,000 to his defense as well.
Perata was term-limited out of the Legislature last year, and the probe's end without any criminal charges could bolster Perata's candidacy for mayor of Oakland in 2010, which he had announced in March. "I'm looking forward to turning the page on this entire unpleasant and unwarranted chapter and moving forward, focusing on bringing new hope and real leadership to the City I love," he said Wednesday.
"Certainly a pall — to whatever extent people perceived it — has been lifted," San Jose State State political science Professor Larry Gerston said Wednesday, adding he doesn't believe that pall detracted from Perata's efficacy as Pro Tem but "we don't know to what extent this kept him from running for statewide office, particularly in 2006 — we'll never know."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to comment Wednesday.
Elliot Peters, Nick Perata's attorney, said Wednesday that his client is "relieved and he's happy and he's happy for his dad. He loves his dad a lot and this thing has been lingering now for five years."
Peters said he had met with prosecutors in Brown's office earlier this year and found it "bewildering."
"They picked up a case that another bunch of prosecutors had looked at really closely for four years and decided not to indict, and within about 15 minutes were jumping to conclusions and drawing inferences. "... It was obvious they didn't know the facts, and that was what was scary because they can ruin your life just by filing charges," Peters said, digging deep for a Batman metaphor. "You think you're dealing with Commissioner Gordon and suddenly you're dealing with the Joker."