5.31.2010

TS (WillitsNews) - Humboldt County DA candidates talk administration

Humboldt County DA candidates talk administration

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at the primary issues that have been raised in the district attorney's race:

It's arguably the most powerful position in the county.

The Humboldt County district attorney is tasked with running a team of trial attorneys and a unit of armed investigators, all of whom exercise a lot of discretion and wield a great deal of power. The district attorney is also ultimately tasked with deciding who gets charged with a crime and who doesn't. They have the power to defend the weak, stand up for victims, protect the innocent and punish the guilty. They also have the power to destroy lives, as false charges often leave stains that don't wash away.

The amount of responsibility the office holds is evident even in its basic job description, as the National District Attorneys Association lists the primary responsibility of a top prosecutor as seeing “that justice is accomplished.”

The nature of the position also leaves much of a district attorney's work shielded out of view from the public, which generally doesn't get to see the intricacies of a charging decision, sit through a trial or even spend a day watching a deputy district attorney work his or her way through a court calendar.

So, any time a district attorney's chair is up for election, the stakes are high and the race is likely to get contentious. This year's race is no different, with challengers Allison Jackson and Paul Hagen looking to unseat two-term incumbent Paul Gallegos.

This is the first in a three-part series looking at the primary issues that have been raised in the race. This story will focus on administering the district attorney's office, the second story will focus on marijuana policy and the final installment will take a look at plea bargains and their role in the justice system.

When it comes to Gallegos' ability to administer and run his office, Hagen and Jackson have no shortage of criticism. They contend he has failed to hire and retain quality prosecutors, that he spends too much time in the courtroom and not enough managing and mentoring staff, and that disorganization in the office repeatedly leads to dropped charges and ill-conceived plea agreements.

Gallegos denies all of that. First, he said he has some major administrative accomplishments under his belt, including bringing the office into the 21st century by introducing case management software to replace the index cards the office previously used to keep track of cases. Further, he said he's made sure every employee of the office uses e-mail and outfitted all investigators and attorneys with Blackberry cell phones, ensuring they're more accessible.

He also says he has a great team of talented, capable and hard-working prosecutors underneath him, that his office works well as a team with structures in place to mentor and nurture young attorneys and that his job is to try cases in the courtroom just as much as it is to administer the office.

When it comes to running the office, Hagen's primary charge is that Gallegos is simply not there enough to do the job because he spends too much time at trial.

”If your top priority is to be in trial, then everything else gets short shrift,” Hagen said. “Who's minding the store?”

While Hagen went so far as to say that a district attorney should only try a case from time to time to keep a finger on the pulse of local juries, Jackson criticized the amount of attention Gallegos puts on trials. She said it contributes to the “utter lack of supervision and guidance” she sees in the office, and Hagen said he simply believes Gallegos doesn't train or mentor staff well.

For his part, Gallegos is adamant that no administrative duties are left undone because of the time he spends in the courtroom. Further, with a small staff and a huge workload, Gallegos said he owes it to the office to lead from the front and take on as much as possible.

He chuckled at the notion that Hagen and Jackson say they will spend less time in court if elected.

”It really amazes me that both of them are essentially promising to do less work,” he said, adding that trials in the county only run until noon, leaving him the rest of the day to take care of things in the office. “If trials were all day or if I only worked a 40-hour work week, then maybe there would be some truth to (the criticism). But, a 40-hour work week is not a luxury I have.”

Further, Gallegos said he tries to promote leadership within his office, pointing directly to Assistant District Attorney Wes Keat and Chief Investigator Mike Hislop. Part of administering and part of leading, Gallegos said, is delegating. Even with his deputy district attorneys, Gallegos said he promotes people with leadership ability, which he said leaves the office with “multiple layers” of teachers.

Having said that, Gallegos quickly added that he also spends plenty of time working with his attorneys. Saying he simply loves trials and cases, he said he can't help but talk to all his prosecutors about the cases they are working on. He said he makes a point of going to court with new lawyers, or making sure another prosecutor does the same. But, Gallegos said he also hires competent attorneys and expects them to make competent decisions.

Jackson disputes the last notion, saying the office has a dearth of experienced, top-flight prosecutors. She said the office experienced an exodus of upper-level attorneys in the years after Gallegos was elected, and again after he was re-elected in 2006.

Further, Jackson said the office has a well-earned reputation for not having a stable, professional environment -- a reputation that has extended far enough that it has become difficult for the office to hire good attorneys from outside the area. She even went so far as to say that help-wanted advertisements from the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office have an “imaginary skull and crossbones” on them in attorney circles throughout the state.

”A law office rises and falls in how its staff is put together,” Jackson said, adding that Humboldt's top law office is in a free fall, in part, because of its staffing situation.

Gallegos vehemently denies this. First, he says that his office is fully staffed -- a notion that is buttressed by the county's job application web page, which lists no vacant positions in the office. Second, he said he would put his team of attorneys up against that of any like-sized office in the state.

”At every level here we have outstanding attorneys,” he said, pointing to the likes of deputy district attorneys Max Cardoza, Arnie Klein, Maggie Flemming, Ben McLaughlin, Allan Dollison, Kelly Neel and others, describing each of them in glowing terms. “You have a great collective brain trust here.”

If that's true, it's not always evident in court, according to Jackson. She said she's seen attorneys bring cases to preliminary hearing unprepared to prove the essential elements of a charge or meet the minimum burden of proof, she's seen cases dropped on the eve of trial and generally gets the impression that cases “languish” from the conclusion of a preliminary hearing until the time of trial.

According to statistics from the California Department of Justice, Gallegos' administration has seen more of its adult felony cases dismissed than that of his predecessor, Terry Farmer, the 20-year incumbent who Gallegos ousted in a surprise 2002 election victory. However, the statistics also indicate that Gallegos' office has filed more of that type of cases per year, and gotten more convictions.

According to the statistics, which only cover the last four years of Farmer's tenure and the first six of Gallegos', Farmer's office received about 1,836 adult felony cases a year and filed about 1,415 adult felony complaints a year. Farmer saw about 64.5 percent of his adult felony cases result in convictions annually, and about 11.75 percent result in charges being dismissed.

Gallegos, according to the stats, has seen his office receive about 2,221 adult felony case referrals a year, and file about 1,690 adult felony criminal complaints a year. Of those, Gallegos has seen about 63 percent result in convictions and about 12.66 percent result in charges being dismissed annually.

If elected in November, Jackson said her first order of business would be to review the entire office's staff in order to assess each individual's strengths and weaknesses. She said she would then review all the office's pending cases, starting with the most serious. Then, Jackson said she would re-assign cases vertically, ensuring that the most egregious charges are in the hands of the most skilled attorneys.

For his part, Hagen said, if elected, he will also immediately begin to meet with staff to assess abilities and strengths. Hagen said he would also likely review and change some office policies and procedures but, more importantly, would set a new standard for the office, letting staff know he expects their best and won't accept less.

Gallegos said he feels good about what he has accomplished in the office over the last eight years, but believes there is more work to be done.

All three firmly believe they are the best candidate for the job, and will be best able to manage what is arguably the county's most powerful office.

Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or tgreenson@times-standard.com.

Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
Posted: 05/31/2010 01:30:18 AM PDT