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Harris still has some explaining to do

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Harris still has some explaining to do
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president last week. COURTESY PHOTO

In the fall of 2009, I spent nearly an hour with then-San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris discussing her new book, “Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer,” on my Pacifica Radio show. She was smart, witty, but most of all she laid out a pragmatic blueprint for confronting police abuse, the social and economic causes of crime, the towering abuses in a blatant racially skewed criminal justice system and a humane alternative to then prevailing lock-em’-up-and-throw-away-the-key hard mentality of prosecutors. I was impressed and marked her as a political up-and-comer and someone to keep my eye on.

I was an ardent and enthusiastic supporter when she ran and won the California Attorney General post in 2010. I fully expected that she’d be the same progressive, forward thinking and acting legal advocate and champion for criminal justice reform and against corporate abuses. Her election timing, I thought, was especially good, coming at the moment when the issue raged of police killings of mostly unarmed young blacks and Hispanics. I and several other civil rights activists quickly appealed to her to back our proposal that she establish an independent office to investigate all police shootings in the state.

This was absolutely crucial given that local district attorneys in even the most outrageous and horrific cases of overuse of deadly force by cops refused to prosecute officers. AGs and state officials in New York and Wisconsin had acted and established independent offices to investigate police shootings. So, this was hardly a far-out request. There were numerous attempts at meetings; letters were written and press conferences held to get her to act. She refused. The result: California still has no independent counsel, investigator or prosecutor to take investigations of police killings out of the hands of local police and prosecutors.

Harris’s inaction became even more puzzling when the case of San Quentin death row inmate Kevin Cooper became a flashpoint issue. There was a mountain of evidence that local prosecutors in Chino, California, a Los Angeles bedroom community, had framed Cooper, an African-American and an ex-convict, for the brutal murder of four whites in their home in 1983. Cooper’s defense attorneys demanded that he be given a DNA test that could possibly exonerate him. Cooper has come within a hair’s breadth of being executed.

Yet, despite repeated appeals from attorneys and criminal justice advocates that Harris support the request for the test, she didn’t. As was the case with the appeal to back an independent investigator in police killings, she gave no explanation why. After Harris was out of the AG post and a U.S. senator, and there was a full-blown media expose of the Cooper-DNA fiasco, she issued a terse statement saying she hoped then California Governor Jerry Brown would order a DNA test for Cooper. He did. Again, she gave no explanation why she didn’t act when she had the chance.

There are other concerns. Her reluctance to back body cameras on cops, her apparent opposition to the release of non-violent prisoners from the state’s bulging prisons, despite a court order to do just that, and her refusal to oppose an illegal jail house informant program run by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department with the alleged backing of the local district attorney’s office.

There’s more. Harris has been repeatedly slammed for doing nothing about the outrageous and well-documented rip-off foreclosure operation scam by then One West Bank CEO Steve Mnuchin. Probes nailed the bank with over 1,000 legal violations to intentionally boost foreclosures of distressed home homeowners. Over 80,000 homes were foreclosed on and the bank raked in tens of millions from the alleged fraudulent action.

There were loud screams for Harris to prosecute. She didn’t, and her only explanation was yet another terse statement saying that her office “pursued it like any other case.” Nothing more was said. Mnuchin later made a small donation to her Senate campaign. But the relative paltry dollars he gave to her can’t be chalked up to influence peddling to forestall any prosecution. So, her failure to nail him is a “Why not?” question that remains unanswered. Mnuchin, of course, not only skipped away scot free but got a rich reward from Trump, nabbing the Treasury Secretary spot.

Now, there’s a lot to like about 2020 presidential contender Harris. She’s been one of the loudest public hammers of Trump’s incompetence, lies and bigotry. She’s proudly and unabashedly claimed the mantle of being a fighter for progressive causes from health care to women’s, LGBT and civil rights issues, and of course, criminal justice reform. She’ll almost certainly battle hard to outflank her Democratic presidential rival Elizabeth Warren as being a crusader against Wall Street and corporate abuses. This is all welcome and admirable. But it will be a lot more comforting to me for her to answer those troubling questions that still cloud her political past.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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