Top Contra Costa prosecutor blasts Times editorial, the conduct of his own union, and what he describes as the toxic atmosphere in our county’s District Attorney’s Office

Who would think it, but the race among three candidates to be the next Contra Costa District Attorney is getting scorching hot. One of the office’s top prosecutors, and one of California’s most respected homicide prosecutors, has issued a public statement, pointing to alleged bad behavior and politicial posturing among some of his DA colleagues and attacking the Contra Costa Times for ducking out on its Fourth Estate role as community watchdog.

Hal Jewett is the “Jack McCoy” of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, says Contra Costa Times Political Editor Lisa Vordergruebben. Her blog Tuesday published a letter that Jewett has sent to the Times, criticizing the paper for too easily dismissing allegations that one candidate’s supporters in the DA’s office violated the law.

The prosecutor’s union has endorsed one of the candidates, Dan O’Malley, a former Contra Costa County prosecutor and Superior Court judge. That means, the union is not endorsing the second candidate Mark Peterson, who is currently another senior prosecutor in the office.

This latest brouhaha stems from Peterson crying foul about a January 14 fundraiser hosted for O’Malley by some of his DA’s office supporters. Peterson alleged that these O’Malley supporters acted illegally by hosting this fundraiser and asking the 50 invited prosecutors to donate money. An Internet invitation, written by prosecutor Johanna Schonfield, asked guests to “join Dan O’Malley and your fellow Deputy District Attorneys … at an intimate fundraiser.” It suggested that prosecutors give $200 to $500.

Peterson said the fundraiser ran afoul of a law that bars candidates for office, and employees of that office, from soliciting donations from others in the agency.

Barry Grove, president of the Deputy District Attorney’s Association, said the e-mail invitation was written by a young attorney who wasn’t familiar with the law. Both he and O’Malley said O’Malley didn’t know about the solicitation for donations and asked that it be removed once he got wind of it. Furthermore, O’Malley’s campaign has decried Peterson’s attempts at an “ill-conceived smear campaign” over this incident, in which, the campaign says, he made other false allegations, such as who was or was not invited to the event, before investigating the facts.
Vordergruebben says in a recent column she questioned whether the incident was sufficient enough to warrant a criminal investigation. Her newspaper also published an editorial, saying that Mark Peterson “needs to stop his reckless accusations” against O’Malley and his supporters. In the view of the Times, this is simply the case of some lawyers getting “sloppy,” and “perhaps technically violating the law.” It is a diversion from the real issues that the candidates need to talk about.
Personally, I have not decided who I’ll vote for. But, this whole race has turned out to be disappointing and disturbing. First of all, aren’t prosecutors, with their JDs, supposed to be smarter than this? And, aren’t prosecutors hired to work on the public’s behalf, upholding the law?
It might be true, technically and legally, that no crime occurred. And, maybe some of Peterson’s accusations against O’Malley crossed a line. But, so did the actions of O’Malley’s supporters in asking for the donations.
The whole incident and back-and-forth accusations smell. Like a murder victim’s corpse left rotting in a house for a few days.
Sorry for my lame attempt at a Raymond Chandler-esque simile, but I’m not the only one who smells something rotten going on in our District Attorney’s Office. And that person is Jewett.

I’ve seen Jewett in action in the courtroom and spoken with him. I know some of our politics would clash, and I don’t agree with some decisions he has made on certain cases, but I’m convinced he acts out of respect for the law and a desire to do the right thing, not to further his personal glory. By the way, in 2008, he was named “Prosecutor of the Year” by the California District Attorney’s Association. Here is his letter:

It was with some dismay I read today’s editorial telling a candidate for public office to “shut up”, and castigating him for reporting a violation of campaign fundraising laws to the attorney general. Your remarks were profoundly ironic and rude.

Your conclusions were wrong. Any newspaper (or other advocate of the 1st Amendment) telling any citizen to “shut up,” or trivializing the violation of a law designed to prevent undue influence being placed on public employees vested with a public trust, is itself irresponsible.

As a prosecutor of 27+ years in this county, I have never seen the kind of political environment that exists in this office now. Our new prosecutors union has long since exceeded its stated purpose of maximizing benefits for its members, and now seeks to exercise substantial influence in the political arena.

Historically, that was the job of the district attorney … but times have apparently changed. I have never previously seen a solicitation for monies even approaching the $500 mentioned in the “e-vite” here. The suggestion that the idea of this solicitation originated with some young lawyer who didn’t know better is ludicrous.

The assertion that this wasn’t a fundraiser by prosecutors for prosecutors (with a few police detectives thrown in the mix for good measure) is poppycock. However, the truly disturbing aspect of this story is not the violation of a relatively obscure law. It is the denials; it is lawyers in full spin mode prepared to sacrifice a young attorney to avoid responsibility. Your editorial did not help.

This office is almost daily treated to closed door sessions of experienced lawyers and managers talking political strategy. Banter in the hallways includes experienced prosecutors openly singing about “war”.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist for the low and mid-level attorneys to figure out which side their bread is buttered on. The effect of all this on the clerical personnel is undoubtedly numbing. It is precisely this kind of environment the statute you pay lip service to was designed to prevent.

With all of the posturing going on, one thing is certain: in our zeal to promote our candidate (whoever that may be) we are quickly loosing sight of our client (The People).

If your newspaper is not the partisan rag your editorial suggests it is, you should carefully and critically examine all of the assertions being made by all of the candidates, both about themselves and about their opponents.

If the public is being misled or the law is not being obeyed, it is your responsibility to expose the truth regardless of your predilections. That’s what Mark Peterson did (while trying murder case after murder case, by the way).

Truth first.

Harold W. Jewett

23 thoughts on “Top Contra Costa prosecutor blasts Times editorial, the conduct of his own union, and what he describes as the toxic atmosphere in our county’s District Attorney’s Office

  1. It is obvious that Peterson is desperate and trying to get as much mileage out of this “controversy” as possible. He is far behind Dan O'Malley both in fundraising and popularity, and is using very ugly smear tactics. I think it speaks volumes that so many in the DA's office and in law enforcement support Dan O'Malley, who will not only make an incredible DA but is a wonderful role model the kids that he coaches in his off time.


  2. I support Dan O'Malley and think he's the best person for this job but I too am sick of reading about the crap, grandstanding and corruption going on in the DA's office. Its not just this with some attorney supposedly not knowing that it was illegal to ask for donations, its also the Gressett case and the shenanigans behind that. I hope to see O'Malley who seems to care about this community go in there and clean things up and get rid of the bad apples.


  3. I am offended that there are people out there who think that it is okay for this conduct to go unchecked, by a candidate for District Attorney. If there is no law violation, so be it, but at least it should be checked out, and there is nothing wrong with the other candidate for asking that it be done.
    But, it “smells” bad to be asking the people in the DA's office for money in such a flagarant way, and then say that the person who calls them on it is blowing things out of proportion. How far is not too far for a candidate to go?
    Hal Jewett is right to stand up for Mr. Peterson, and the Contra Costa Times should be ashamed for not printing his letter. They appear extremely biased in the race.


  4. ok, but y'all – what stinks here is that if a citizen brings a complaint you want to feel as though there is objectivity going on and that the CC Times will address it and not look to take a side without doing any investigative journalism…

    the Times now stinks! the county officials now stink. The DA's office seems to indict public officials only if they are not employees – just do a google on Bolen and you'll see that the only ones he indicts are districts and city workers and what not – not one instance of county employee being sacked – see Gus the assessor and sexual harassment in the Times for more info.


  5. Hello all,
    Again, I'm not taking sides in who should win this election, but it REALLY concerns me that Hal Jewett is raising concerns about things happening in the District Attorney's Office. Again, Jewett and I probably would not agree on some issues, but I think his letter deserves more attention–certainly more than the Times is so far giving it. IMHO, it should be front page news. It should be front and center of the Times homepage.

    Instead it's burried on their political editor's blog. Not to knock Lisa's blog, because I happen to think it is one of the things truly worth reading on the Times site these days. She knows it is news, and something worth paying attention to. Her editors, meanwhile, are in some kind of la la land.

    Someone of Jewett's position is saying things are not working right in the place he works. And the place he works happens to be the District Attorney's Office. That office has an incredibly amount of power and influence in our community. It really does. And, the operations of that office deserve more scrutiny.


  6. ok, SM, this is your time to make a difference! I am totally behind you:


    Your DA's office is doing some really questionable things!

    Your regional paper's editors seem to be only willing to print something if it is litigation-proof!

    SM – I think you should write about this everyday and get KPIX involved as you have been able to do in the past – it is time for CHANGE!


  7. Dear SM,
    Please remember Hal Jewett isn't impartial and has taken sides. Putting his letter on the front page would be irresponsible. Yes, the CCT should investigate further (great piece on the CCC DA's office in the East Bay Express a few montsh ago by a former Times reporter), but during an election, the paper needs to be careful.


  8. Thanks for the East Bay Express link. I don't get a chance to read the Express enough. The Gressett case also raised some troubling questions to me about what's going on in that office.

    Again, I am not taking sides with any of the three candidates. I am just saying the Jewett says there are problems in his office. I think he rightly criticizes the Times editorial saying Peterson should stop making certain allegations, so that the candidates can focus on more important issues.

    A very important issue in this race, to me and apparently to Jewett and some other readers, is cleaning up that office. I'm not saying Peterson is the one to do it. But is O'Malley? I don't know. Perhaps both candidates and/or their supporters are engaging in the kind of grandstanding and politicking that is rather reprehensible. Prosecutors should rise to a pretty high standard of professional conduct–when they have power over the lives and liberty of individuals–and certain news coming out of that office makes me, as a resident of this county, uncomfortable.


  9. With all this noise about has anyone addressed what the issues are in the DA's race?

    What sort of things are people interested in:
    1. stand on the death penalty
    2. plea bargain limits
    3. prosecution of different classes of crimes
    4. View on the Three strikes law and its applications
    5. diversion vs prosecution on drug cases
    6. contract structure of the DA's office employment
    7. decentralization or more centralization of the office functions
    8. what about interpretations of law -where do they differ on and what is important



  10. Edi Birsan asks some good questions, too.

    On the other hand, I read late last night the East Bay Express article on the Michael Gressett rape case and what it might say about the questionable professionalism and workplace conduct of those lawyers and public servants who would be making decisions about plea bargains and when to apply the death penalty.

    After I finished reading the article, I wondered, who are THESE people?


  11. Soccer Mom and others,
    We are people who get up every day and put people in jail for violating the law.
    We are people who do not do what that ridiculous East Bay Express article accuses us of. We are in court every day fighting to make sure people atone for their wrongs and are removed from society, so that others may be safe.
    I am not saying that we are perfect, but we, as a group, have a strong sense of commitment to the people of this county. We work hard for less money than our colleagues in other counties get for the same job. There are less of us to do it than other counties in this area, due to budget cuts. And it may get worse.
    It is a shame that people write things here without a true understanding of the facts.
    Again, we are not perfect, but we did not choose the path that allowed criminals to go free, and we are not getting rich doing this.
    If we could focus on the point of letter to the Times, which has not been printed in the paper, only on the internet, that would be a more fruitful discussion.


  12. “Printed” on line is pretty much the same as printed in the paper, these days.

    SM — all sides will use or try to use your blog (and others) to grandstand and, yes, to campaign. And as smart as you are, you don't know the full inside story or scene. This is why all communications from the DA's office and from candidates need to be eyed with a certain degree of cynicism right now. Don't let yourself get played. . .

    I agree with Ed about the issues, but character is certainly one of these.

    As for the CCCTimes, well, it usually does a decent job covering campaigns, I've found, on a shoe-string. Impartially. It can always do more. Ain't that the truth.


  13. Dear 6:58,
    Read the East Bay Express article. It doesn't paint a pretty picture of some people in your office. Perhaps the writer sensationalized some things. We writers do that, you know. Come to think of, so do candidates for public office, like the District Attorney's Office.

    Do I know the inside story? No, I don't. I don't pretend to.

    In the East Bay Express story, it appears that the primary sources were the lawyers for Michael Gressett. So, of course, they're playing the game, too.

    Yes, I'm convinced that the majority of attorneys in the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office are hard-working dedicated public servants, providing an invaluable service to the community. And you have to deal with horrific budget cuts–just like all other public agencies in this county and state.

    And, it's unfortunate that a few of those proverbial bad apples are spoiling your bunch. And, it sounds like there are some bad apples. Some immature, unprofessional, self-centered, ethically compromised bad apples.

    Prosecutors, like police officers, have enormous power over people's lives. So, I guess the public tends to expect more from you all than we would from people in other professions. That's just the way it is. I realize you're not perfect. I certainly am not.

    Does Hal Jewett have an agenda? I wouldn't be surprised if he does. He says it's to reveal the truth. Maybe it's his version of the truth.

    Both the East Bay Express article and his letter describe a workplace that is/was perhaps not functioning as well as it should. He talks about DA's attorneys spending time engaged in politicking. I thought the attorneys were having to work harder because of fewer resources.

    In any event, I hope that the next District Attorney–whoever that is– will monitor his or her staff–or the few bad apples on his or her staff–better than Bob Kochly apparently has.


  14. 7:13 am
    On line and on paper are not the same.
    BTW-did you see the ridiculous cut up version that the Times DID print this morning of the Jewett letter?
    SM-Good for you for publishing the entire content of the letter.


  15. 10:28
    SM “published” the letter on-line (yes, a helpful post); the CCT “published” the letter on-line.

    You're fighting a losing battle if you think newspapers are still in the “printed paper” business. The paper side of news won't be around much longer, at least how we know it.


  16. Let's not forget that:

    1. Dan O'Malley's wife is the presiding Contra Costa County Superior Court judge. Is it appropriate for DA's to be donating to the husband of a sitting judge who affects their work on a daily basis?

    2. The President of the DA's association, Barry Grove, who led the charge to have the association endorse O'Malley is married to an employee of O'Malley's firm.

    3. Mr. O'Malley is fighting a subpoena for his phone records related to the Gresset Case.

    4. Jane Doe, the alleged Gresset victim, went to O'Malley's firm for representation even before she reported the alleged rape to the police.


  17. yeah the whole office there is clearly a mess – let's ask the state ATTY GEN to clean house – how would one go about that?


  18. District Attorney Mark Peterson is not fit for Office He has used the n word with other staff on several occasions. He had prosecuted Young Black male of whom had no prior record but had a young white neighbor of whom had nothing to eat and was present with three other young males. The victim on several occasions advised that this young male was no apart of the incident that occurred yet he suppressed the Evidence along with statements from the three other boys present because they were juveniles he The 18year old at the time was placed on Probation for two years, but has been arrested three times for failure to attend a class of which because if his being indigent cannot afford thus extending his probation under the direct behind the scenes of Mark peterson. In addition in the case of the Female Da of whom was raped by a fellow da. Mark was aware of the abuse before it became Public and a personal friend of the Attacker while he was a Da. Mark Peterson also had been having an Affair with a Fellow Da of whom had an Office next to him while is was a Da. She is married and was pregnant at the Time. Mark peterson has stated he will not have nor hire any additional people of color on his staff. The few he has now is more than enough. Mark used cohesion and Paid promises while slandering Omalley. While on the City Council he was adverse and Racist to people of Color while on the City Council. There is still corruption going on under his watch. There should be an Investigation by the Justice Department. He also lied to the Grand Jury of his knowledge regarding the Female Da that was attacked by A fellow Co worker. He should be removed. Investigate, Investigate follow the reports and his actions since becoming The Leader of the Da!s Office


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