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The L.A. Lawman Gunning For Dow Corning

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Ira Reiner isn't really the Hollywood type, though one day he did do lunch with L. A. Law co-creator Terry Louise Fisher. But from his perch as county prosecutor, the 56-year-old Los Angeles County District Attorney has gained his own national reputation for taking on corporate powerhouses, often moving in ahead of the federal government. In December, his troops won the first conviction of former Lincoln Savings & Loan head Charles H. Keating Jr. for fraudulently selling millions of dollars in worthless junk bonds.

Now, Reiner is grabbing the limelight again--but his reach may exceed his grasp. On Jan. 30, he began a criminal probe into whether Dow Corning Corp. concealed health risks associated with its silicone gel breast implants. The investigation is the first major test of a year-old California law for which Reiner lobbied vigorously. The measure, the toughest of its kind in the country, holds executives criminally liable for workplace conditions or product defects that cause harm to employees or consumers. Penalties include up to three years in the can. "There's no deterrent like a clank of a jail cell closing behind you," says Reiner. Dow Corning, which is cooperating with Reiner's office, says the investigation has no merit.

POLITICAL ASPIRATIONS. Locking up corporate criminals has been a constant goal of Reiner's since he was first elected DA in 1984. So far, his office has won more than 230 convictions against companies violating local environmental laws and sent 36 executives to jail. Six others drew jail time for manslaughter when safety violations led to a worker's death. No other locality has even come close to Los Angeles in the number of managers that they've sent to jail, says Joseph A. Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute.

With a record like that, it's not surprising critics accuse Reiner of trying to score political points. And he does aspire to higher office. Last year, Reiner lost the Democratic nomination to become California's Attorney General. This year, he faces three challengers in the June Democratic primary for Los Angeles DA. One of them, Head Deputy District Attorney Gilbert Garcetti, also charges that Reiner offered unnecessary plea bargains to bolster his conviction rate. A burly man who works in rolled up shirt sleeves, Reiner waves away such criticism with a gruff "No comment."

One drawback of Reiner's high-profile style is that some cases end up as very public failures. Dow Corning could be one. Reiner's office would have to prove that the implant maker's executives knowingly concealed "a serious danger" and did so after the corporate-crime law's 1991 passage. "Moreover, there is a serious question as to whether this is an area that has been preempted by the federal government," says Warren L. Ettinger, the Los Angeles attorney who represents the company. But Reiner isn't sweating. He's betting on a splashy showing that even Hollywood might envy.Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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