McK Press - Grand Jury Report: D.A. guilty of 'weak leadership'

This is Daniel Mintz's article from the McKinleyville Press, Arcata Eye and Garberville Independent.
The first half is about the Grand Jury Report, the second half is Richard Salzman's response on Paul's behalf. The spin is interesting. Discredit the Grand Jury, discredit Terry Farmer... Here, Salzman acts as a spokesperson for the DA's Office, though he is not hired, not paid and not retained to do so. Nor should he be privvy to the inner workings of the office or the details of sensitive cases.

Grand Jury Report: D.A. guilty of 'weak leadership'

Capping a month-long streak of bad publicity for District Attorney Paul Gallegos, the county's Grand Jury has released a report that portrays him as a clueless department head whose staff makes decisions without guidance.

The watchdog group's 2004-05 report includes a stream of unflattering findings on the D.A. Its release last week follows other events that involve Gallegos-related criticism, including the dismissal of his fraud lawsuit against the Pacific Lumber Company, the disintegration of the conflict of interest case against Fortuna Councilwoman Debi August - which involved the Grand Jury's foreperson - and the start of Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman's campaign for Gallegos' job.

"Weak leadership and poor managerial practices" have undermined the office, the 21-member Grand Jury concluded. Its 2004-05 report included a range of investigatory topics, but the findings on Gallegos have drawn immediate attention. Released days after Dikeman's campaign announcement, the report faults the D.A. for procedural ignorance, unwise employee management and poor communication skills.

Authored by Grand Jury Foreperson Darlene Marlow, whose alleged intervention in the Debi August case yielded its dismissal, the findings indicate that Gallegos' employees - and the D.A. himself - provided testimony that led the jurors to conclude that the office is operating in a managerial void.

"Implicit in all evidence gathered by the Grand Jury - including interviews with the D.A. - is the unfortunate truth that the D.A. exhibits a limited understanding of how things are done in the department," the report said. It goes on to disclose that Gallegos "lacks the global perspective needed to keep the department operating efficiently," and quotes an unnamed staff member as saying, "The D.A. does not fully understand the functionality of many of the things we do here."

That content falls under the heading of "Lack of Leadership and Managerial Skill." Other sections detail "poor communication" with staff, police agencies and the public. The report also cites a "disastrously high rate of turnover among experienced deputy D.A.s" as a factor that has "robbed the department of resources that realistically cannot be replaced."

The report also suggests that crime victims are being underserved by Gallegos, mentioning the loss of child abuse prosecutors and communication obstacles that exist "in part due to the inexperience of new, inadequately trained workers."

Dropping in the midst of a sudden upsurge of political intrigue, the report backs up much of the criticism Dikeman delivered in his announcement statement. But the timing and content of the report leads Gallegos' campaign manager to suspect that it is the product of political maneuvering that has been ongoing ever since the D.A. took office after a surprise 2002 election victory.

Controversial findings

The only reference to the considerable political pressures affecting the office is in the Grand Jury's declaration that the working atmosphere has been "seriously disrupted" by the recall effort that followed Gallegos' filing of the fraud lawsuit.

Gallegos has been dealing with a family emergency and was not available for comment last week. Richard Salzman, his campaign manager, said the Grand Jury report is tilted with politically-steered "hyperbole." He believes that Gallegos' detractors saw the Grand Jury as a useful political tool following the unsuccessful recall attempt and have shaped the content of the report.

"This is a Grand Jury that's been led by Paul's political opponents and disgruntled former employees," Salzman said. "Paul's political adversaries have been making the same complaints since the day he was elected - as soon as he took office, they said he has no prosecution experience and has never managed an office. Now they've been able to manipulate the Grand Jury, whose report is tainted to say the least and whose forewoman's motives and actions are certainly called into question with her antics in the Debi August case."

A former Grand Jury foreperson testified that Marlow directed her to withhold evidence on the August case, which led to its dismissal. Returning a phone message, Marlow said she couldn't comment on the Grand Jury report.

One of its findings is contradicted by readily available evidence. The report concludes that "even the Board of Supervisors has problems getting information from the D.A." Communication between Gallegos and the board is indeed icy, but the basis of the finding is a May 17 supervisors meeting attended by jurors, where "supervisors complained that the D.A. had not given timely notice" on the loss of grant funding for crime victim counselors.

"These proposed cuts are the result of a grant denial that was received by the D.A.'s office on Sept. 29, 2004," according to the report.

But the Board of Supervisors received the letter first. It was addressed to Supervisor Jill Geist, who was the board's chairperson at the time, and was then forwarded to Gallegos, the county administrative officer and Sheriff Gary Philp. And inter-departmental communication led to a resolution of the situation, as money from a social services fund largely restored the lost grant amount.

The report also questions Deputy District Attorney and former Assistant D.A. Tim Stoen's job performance, saying that "no one interviewed was able to explain what he did other than to work on two high visibility cases," a reference to the Pacific Lumber and Debi August prosecutions. Stoen said no one from the Grand Jury interviewed him, and he pointed out that other cases he's worked on - including a theft from the U.S. Postal Service via fabricated auto repair charges and a Southern Humboldt school fund embezzlement case - received press attention but went unnoticed by jurors.

Non-stop campaigning

Doubts about Gallegos are not uncommon within county government, however. Part of the trouble is due to the circumstances of his arrival as D.A. Challenging former and longtime D.A. Terry Farmer in the 2002 election, Gallegos was roundly disparaged by Farmer and his prosecutors, and one of them wrote a letter to newspapers proclaiming that "even the boss's son has to start in the mailroom."

Heading in with campaign baggage, a newly-elected Gallegos set the office's veterans on edge when he told an interviewer that voters wanted change, and he'd make it happen even if he had to fire prosecutors.

And when Gallegos filed the fraud lawsuit against Palco, the office became a magnet for media attention and an almost immediate recall election.

Internal dramas spiked when emails on the fraud lawsuit were apparently stolen from Stoen's office computer and passed on to reporters. Serious budget cuts happened at the same time, and staff turnover followed the recall.

The loss of experienced prosecutors is a major item of complaint in the Grand Jury report. Some resigned and one was fired.

The report found that in January 2003, nine of the office's 13 deputy district attorneys were longtime employees, but now only five of 11 are, a 24 percent drop. The Grand Jury found that the trend demonstrates a strategy of "replacing experienced people who had demonstrated their loyalty with new, unknown quantities."

The post-recall termination of Allison Jackson, the deputy D.A. known for assertive prosecution of sex crimes, "dealt a crippling blow to the Child Abuse Services Team," according to the report, which also found that her position had not been refilled "despite available special funding."

The report depicts the office as operating in a leaderless muddle. "Problems are dealt with on an ad hoc basis and staff does not receive or expect direction from the D.A., even on policy decisions… lacking guidance from the D.A., staff members must depend on themselves," it reads. Police have complained about not getting adequate information on cases in printouts that are sent too infrequently, the report noted, adding that "the DA seemed aware that such printouts are sent out."

Finally, jurors are troubled by the lack of information on plea bargains in court minutes, inadequate training of newer employees and a failure to assign senior attorneys to grant-funded programs.

Out of the past?

As the report points out, this is the first Grand Jury probe into the D.A.'s office in a decade. Salzman said the report fails to consider what the office was like before Gallegos took it over and how its performance has improved - despite budget cuts that took effect and intensified since his election.

"The office was operating in the 19th century, no less the 20th or 21st, and Paul had the Herculean task of reforming the office's antiquated system and having to deal with dissent within the ranks," Salzman continued. "It's a hell of a task, even if he‚d had a full budget to work with."

Even more remarkable, Salzman added, is the office's work related to public safety. "Case filings are up, convictions are up and crime is down - what more do you want from a district attorney?" he asked.

The report recommends fixes to the problems it describes. Gallegos is asked to request funds from the Board of Supervisors for hiring more experienced attorneys and clerical staff. More frequent and thorough case reporting to police is called for as are development of written procedures for communicating with crime victims, meetings with supervisory staff, written employee performance evaluations, and documentation of plea bargains in court minutes.

The Grand Jury also recommends that Gallegos "refrain from firing deputy D.A.s - except for cause - unless comparable replacement prosecutors are identified and are willing to work in Humboldt County." Finally, Gallegos is asked to "develop and implement a system to provide job security for Deputy D.A.s protecting them from arbitrary firing" by Jan. 1, 2006.

By then, he'll be in the midst of another dramatic campaign episode - this time resisting a challenge from one of his senior prosecutors.

By Daniel Mintz Press Staff Writer (dated around July 9, 2005, at least that is the date I transcribed it)

TS - Grand Jury Findings and Recommendations
ER - 2004-05 Humboldt County Grand Jury Report 6/29/2005
TS - Grand jury issues scathing DA critique June 29, 2005
The Grand Jury Report on the DA's office
TS - Gallegos responds to grand jury findings