On the cover:
by EMILY GURNON
A YEAR AGO, HE WAS RIDING HIGH. ON THE NIGHT OF MARCH 2, 2004, DISTRICT ATTORNEY Paul Gallegos was the center of attention at the packed Lost Coast Brewery, celebrating his landslide victory over those who tried to boot him from office in a recall election. The message was clear, Gallegos told the adoring crowd, "that if we work and sacrifice for democracy, it will work and sacrifice for us."
They were stirring words for his supporters, who saw the victory as a repudiation of good-ol'-boy politics in Humboldt County. Gallegos, a biblical David, had gone up against the Goliath of the Pacific Lumber Co. -- the
company he had sued for fraud and the one that provided some 80 percent of the funding for the recall -- and vanquished it. It was nothing less than the beginning of a new era.
But the feeling of jubilation was not shared by many of Gallegos' colleagues and staff. Today, the affable 42-year-old DA is struggling to manage a massive workload in his office, caused, in part, by his own doing. He consistently skips important meetings, and is out of touch with colleagues and community groups, critics say. And some of the public statements he made during the recall campaign continue to trouble those whose trust he lost.
"I can't say that he hasn't tried," said Eureka Police Capt. Murl Harpham [photo at left] , a 48-year veteran of the force. "We have a good relationship in terms of communicating. The problem is things are not getting done. It hurts our morale, it hurts our ability to do the job."
`Tuned and buffed'
In some ways, Gallegos said, the recall was positive. "It was a good thing because it was an exercise in our values," he said late one recent Friday afternoon in his office's law library. But the divisive campaign also was a major diversion from the job he began in January 2003 after working nine years as a local defense attorney.
"When it was over, it was like, I can get to work. I've been working to do that, to get the office tuned and buffed. The first thing is to turn us into a team. I think we're getting there."
But the ranks of his team have thinned considerably in two years. Gallegos has lost a significant number of his deputy district attorneys, the lawyers who go to court to prosecute Humboldt County's alleged murderers, rapists, drug dealers and petty thieves. Rob Wade and Ed Borg resigned in late summer for jobs in other counties. Nandor Vadas was laid off because a domestic violence grant that funded his position ran out. Harry Kassahkian and Gloria Albin Sheets were laid off. (Sheets later ran as a replacement candidate in the recall and has sued the office for discrimination, claiming she was let go in connection with a workers' compensation claim. The suit is pending.) And, in June, Gallegos fired Allison Jackson.
The loss of Wade, Vadas and Jackson -- all veteran felony prosecutors -- was a crushing blow to the office, observers say. The remaining veterans, Max Cardoza, Worth Dikeman and Maggie Fleming (who only works part-time), are left to shoulder the vast majority of the most serious criminal cases.
Gallegos has chosen not to replace Wade and Jackson with similarly experienced attorneys for budget reasons. Instead, he's hired two recent law school graduates to deal with misdemeanors, the less serious crimes. A third will be hired soon. All must be trained before they set foot in the courtroom. (Other vacancies will not be filled.)
"You try to do the job in a cost-effective way," Gallegos said. "So one of the things we wanted to do is to have misdemeanor attorneys do misdemeanor caseloads, but also support felony deputies. It reduces the felony deputies' caseload, so I don't need as many of them, also my staff is less expensive.
"Could we use more people? Absolutely. Could we use more felony attorneys? Yeah. Times aren't as plush as they were in the past. But I certainly hope this office is fulfilling its obligation, and I believe it is."
Gallegos is taking on some of the load by trying cases in court himself, fulfilling a campaign pledge. He's also getting some additional support for the Palco fraud suit from Steve Schectman, who was officially deputized as an unpaid prosecutor to assist Assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen on the case.
Gallegos won't comment on why he fired Jackson, except to say that he does not regret doing so. Jackson, who got a job doing civil law for the Harland firm in Eureka, declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Wade, Cardoza and Fleming.
As Gallegos continued to talk about the workload, his tone became more serious.
"Are we pushing the office to the point of breaking it?" he said. "Yeah, I think so."
Others, too, have felt the loss of staff in the DA's office. Jackson and Wade, along with Andrew Isaac, were the deputies who handled nearly all of the sexual assault and child abuse cases in the county -- cases that are complicated to investigate and often difficult to prosecute, said Maryann Hayes-Mariani, one of the managers at the North Coast Rape Crisis Team in Eureka.
The departure of Jackson and Wade was an "incredible, monumental" blow, Hayes-Mariani said. "If your focus day in and day out is to prosecute cases where people are hurting people in these horrendous ways, when you're used to having staff that have an incredible amount of experience doing this work, and they can support each other, it's just helpful," she said. "They were very excellent at their jobs, and that we no longer have them is a great void for this community."
The staff shortage has caused another problem, Hayes-Mariani said. Cases that used to be handled from beginning to end with one prosecutor may now be shuttled among several -- with the victim of the crime completely in the dark as to whom to contact about their case.
"The survivor starts feeling frustrated by the system, and if something happens that they weren't made aware of, they end up feeling re-victimized," she said, "lost in the system."
Gallegos said he is simply too short-staffed to always have one deputy stick with a case from beginning to end. "If I had the people, we'd do it absolutely," he said. But "if a judge says that [a particular] case has to be tried, it gets tried by someone. To me, you get the job done."
Law enforcement also feels the pain when prosecutors are up to their eyeballs in work.
"There's just not enough attorneys to review the cases and try the cases," said Dave Walker, a former investigator in the DA's office who now works part-time as a Sheriff's Office investigator. In many instances, he said, charges are never brought against suspects. "That's one of the ways that you really discourage your rank and file guys," he said. "It's really subtle. It's a partnership. The police enforce the law and they have the expectation that many of [the suspects] are going to be prosecuted. I think most of the working police officers I know are just gritting their teeth and waiting to see what happens in the next election."
Police Chief Dave Douglas did not return phone calls seeking comment. Humboldt County Sheriff Gary Philp declined to be interviewed.
"I'm not trying to say it's all his fault," Walker continued. "He's got a pretty tough row to hoe."
But Gallegos does not have a law enforcement background, and the police have never trusted him. They still chafe at the memory of one of Gallegos' early comments: that he would not be "buddies" with the cops. (He is a servant of the community and cannot afford to get too close to anyone, he says.)
"You don't have to be buddies," Walker said. "But you have to have a pretty cordial relationship with them and understand what they're trying to do. He's had a pretty good swing at it and he still hasn't done it. If he hasn't done it by now, it's not going to happen."
The Stoen factor
The presence in the District Attorney's Office of Tim Stoen [photo at left], Gallegos' right hand man, continues to be a sore subject among some of his colleagues, according to members of the legal community who asked to remain anonymous. Stoen, whom some consider rather an odd duck, was recruited by Gallegos from Mendocino County. Though he does work on some criminal cases, much of his time in the last two years has been spent on one civil case: the fraud suit against Pacific Lumber. That may be a hard pill to swallow for those who see criminal cases as more pressing. For Gallegos, it's not an either-or situation.
"Part of what my responsibility is is to file civil lawsuits [as well as criminal cases]," he said. "The people of the state of California and of this community want us to create social justice as well. If someone's committing fraud, be it someone selling cars out here and doing bait-and-switches, or whatever it is, and it falls under the Unfair Business Practices Act, prosecute them."
Of course, some of the animus against Stoen may have to do with the Palco case. For many longtime Humboldt residents, the fact that the county is "going after" one of its biggest and oldest employers is incomprehensible.
Stoen knows that he has been something of a lightning rod for criticism of the office, and he takes it in stride.
"People have told me that I have a big target on my back," he said. "I'm happy when the papers go after me rather than Paul, because the job of a loyal No. 2 is to take those arrows. If I can take some of the heat off Paul, I'm happy to do it."
Stoen says he thinks things are running much more smoothly in the office than they were a year ago. The recall "cleared the air, and established Paul as being in charge," he said. "He has this gift of being able to transcend the personal attacks and personal grievances and concentrate on the job that needs to be done. The focus really is to protect public safety and make this ship run smoothly. I think he's doing an excellent job as a manager and administrator, since it's new to him."
Deputy District Attorney Wes Keat's job is to take all of the reports that come in to the DA's office from the various police agencies and make formal charges against crime suspects.
Though the office has been trying to cope with a very high volume of cases and a shortage of attorneys, things are going better lately, said Keat, a former Riverside police officer who joined the DA's office in 1994.
"Obviously, [Gallegos] has made some choices which impact that, but the problem is not of his making. It's a financial problem," Keat said. "We teach young lawyers the trade and then they go somewhere where they can make a lot more money. We're very much at the bottom end" of the DA pay scale in California.
The ones who stay, he said, are truly dedicated. "What it really means is that the office is full of people for whom money is no object. They believe in it. If we were after money, we wouldn't be here."
Gallegos is "very much different" than former District Attorney Terry Farmer, Keat said, but he's doing a fine job. "He approaches his job differently and he does different stuff," like trying cases himself. "Terry didn't do that very much. Paul, I think, sees himself more as providing the leadership, and he leaves some of the smaller trivial administrative details to other people, such as myself. He's a trial lawyer. He goes to court, he tries cases."
Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman, who ran as a replacement candidate in the recall election, said Gallegos has been fairly effective as a trial lawyer. Asked how effective he is as a manager, Dikeman said, "I think that's a question you should ask Paul."
The best candidate?
Some of his colleagues clearly give Gallegos credit for going into the courtroom. Others say the job of managing his office is monumental enough and he shouldn't be trying cases on top of everything else.
Being a county department head means going to meetings: keeping abreast of overall budget issues, being in touch with other departments and community groups, forging good communications. On this score, some say, Gallegos is falling short.
Christina Allbright [photo at right] has been an attorney for 14 years with the county Public Defender's Office. She said Gallegos is a friend, she likes his politics and she supported him strongly in the recall. But when it comes to representing his office, she said, Gallegos is a no-show.
"He just can't make it to meetings or send a representative, and he's a critical player," Allbright said. "And I know that that's a concern of different community groups."
Records of monthly county department head meetings reveal that Gallegos has attended twice in the last year.
Allbright said she has talked with Gallegos about her misgivings. And she has talked with others about whether there might be a better person for the job. "I'm concerned that he may not be the best candidate in the future."
Gallegos said he attends many meetings each week, but that "getting cases tried and making this office work is my first responsibility, I think."
There is no clear indication who might run against him.
When Dikeman ran as a replacement candidate in the recall, he said throughout the campaign that he was "not running against Paul." He threw his name in the ring when Steve Schectman, a civil attorney with no prosecutorial experience, said he would run in support of Gallegos. Dikeman was determined to keep Schectman out should the recall succeed.
Later, he voted in favor of the recall, and said on election night that there were certain things that had "troubled" him about his boss's conduct.
One example: Gallegos' public statements on his handling of the case of Pedro Martinez-Hernandez, a 39-year-old Ferndale man accused of continually molesting a minor for eight years. The initial charge against Martinez-Hernandez, assigned by Keat as the charging deputy, was one count of "continuous sexual abuse." But Keat also wrote that there were probably many, many sex offense counts that could give the defendant 100 years in prison, and Gallegos' critics said he eventually got additional information that justified multiple charges. Still, Gallegos -- who was handling the case in court and could have amended the charges -- allowed the man to plead guilty in January 2004 to the single count.
When critics blasted Gallegos about the incident, his response was to say that Keat made the charging decisions, not him.
Dikeman said last year that "there was an effort to cover it up," and that "misinformation was released." He did not elaborate, but others have gone further, saying that Gallegos either had not read the file or had misread it. Basically, they say, he screwed up and would not admit it. Worse, he put the blame on Keat.
Gallegos maintains, as he has all along, that it was a "righteous charging decision," and that the fact that Martinez-Hernandez got 16 years in prison was "not a bad resolution of that case.
"The thing I regret is that some people thought I was trying to pony it off on Wes Keat," he said. "I accept that criticism. But it wasn't my intention to cast blame."
Asked whether he would run against Gallegos next year, Dikeman said, "I have not eliminated that possibility yet. Of course, the last election demonstrated that he is a very skillful politician who is capable of generating large amounts of cash." (The Friends of Paul Gallegos raised about $300,000, mostly in small donations, in the recall fight. On the pro-recall side, Pacific Lumber alone contributed more than $313,000 in cash and nonmonetary donations.) And Gallegos has a large following, Dikeman said. "All of those things go into the mix." Meanwhile, his aging Subaru still sports a "Worth Dikeman" bumper sticker from the recall campaign.
Richard Salzman was the campaign manager for No on F, the anti-recall effort. He said the group managed to put together an "infrastructure and environment that encouraged grassroots participation," and thousands joined in: donating money, phone banking, distributing lawn signs. "Ultimately, our success was due to the cause itself," he said, "and to the candidate."
Still, there was considerable outrage generated by the fact that Pacific Lumber was bankrolling the recall effort. The next election won't have that element. "We'll have a greater challenge to raise money this time around," Salzman said.
As to who might run against Gallegos, Salzman said the ideal candidate "probably will need to be from out of the area," although she or he would qualify only after relocating here, of course. Dikeman might run, but "I don't see how you can be an opponent of your boss and still work in the office."
Gallegos himself said he has "every intention" of running for office again when his seat comes up in June 2006. "I still have work to do. I like this job," he said. He called the rumor that he might instead run for judge "ridiculous." (Judges Dale Reinholtsen and Timothy Cissna will be up for re-election next year.)
If he had the last year to do over again, would he change anything?
Small stuff? Sure, he said. Big things, fundamental decisions? "Probably not," he said. "I'm just not one of those kind of people who sit around and think about how to redo life. I don't."
Photo above left: Mosaic mural at Humboldt County courthouse
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