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Bar from Afar 

Humboldt’s retired assistant district attorney working from Southern California

  

Used to be when the Humboldt County Drug Task Force sought legal advice before executing a search warrant, it called a local 707 number to the District Attorney's Office. Now task force members mostly dial a long distance number, and the county legal expert is 750 miles away, working remotely near Palm Springs.

The man answering that phone is Wes Keat, who was Humboldt County's assistant district attorney until he retired in August 2011 and moved to Southern California. The District Attorney's Office rehired Keat part time in October after receiving about $30,000 in anti-drug abuse grant money from the sheriff's office.

It's not uncommon for small counties to hire retired prosecutors for part-time work, said Scott Thorpe of the California District Attorney Association. "Sometimes it's for a particular case, or sometimes it's for types of cases. It runs the gamut and they work it out with their board of supervisors." According to state law, said Thorpe, retired employees cannot work more than half time, and counties can further limit that amount.  

Keat was happy to return to work. He's on call 24/7 to counsel law enforcement on searches and seizures. The Drug Task Force called him a couple weeks ago about the unique legal implications of searching a doctor's office. The other half of the job is essentially paperwork. After catching the alleged bad guys, officers email Keat their arrest reports. Keat then reviews the strength of evidence for prosecution and decides what charges should be filed. It's the same kind of stuff he was doing when he was the assistant district attorney, earning $120,000 a year. Except instead of working from a stuffy, fluorescent-lighted room in Eureka, he now works from his sunny home in Bermuda Dunes, where he has the patio door swung open, with the balmy breeze bringing in a citrus scent from the ruby red grapefruit tree in his backyard. And he doesn't have to wear a tie.  

Because of the nature of the work, Keat's hours are sporadic, but he says the agreement is that he works about 10 hours a week (and cannot surpass 960 total hours), earning $49 an hour. That's on top of a $5,000 a month pension he collects from the Public Employees Retirement System. Once the grant money is gone, so is the position. Then it's time for prosecutors to cross fingers and hope more funding can be found.  

In 2007, there were 15 attorneys in the DA's office, according to current assistant district attorney Kelly Neely. "But due to budget cuts, the office has substantially less, and so the work that used to be done by many is done by few."

District Attorney Paul Gallegos will take whatever he can get at this point. He's happy to have Keat back, alleviating the caseload of an already overworked staff, which now includes 11 attorneys total, plus Keat.

Gallegos has criticized the Board of Supervisors for underfunding his office and not making public safety a bigger priority. Almost half of the DA's budget is now made up of grant money, he said. "The fact is, I don't have the funds to have an attorney to do what Wes does. ... But I still have the obligation to get it done." The sheriff office can arrest people all day long, Gallegos said, but unless an agency is funded to prosecute them, you've wasted money.

By way of comparison, Gallegos points out that the Humboldt County Public Defender and Conflict Counsel offices have 14 attorneys to defend criminal cases. There are also a dozen or so private defense attorneys who work the courthouse.

Data from the California Department of Justice indicates that Gallegos' office is underfunded and understaffed compared to similar counties, as was first reported by the Times-Standard in July.

Humboldt County spends about $2 million from its general fund on the district attorney's office. That's about 2 percent of the county's entire $95 million general fund. Do the math and that comes out to an average of about $270 on prosecutions per criminal complaint sought by law enforcement. Mendocino and Lake Counties spend about 6 percent of their general funds, which calculates out to be roughly $749 and $1,000 respectively on prosecution for every criminal complaint sought. 

Crunching numbers from 2009 Department of Justice crime report -- the most recent available -- indicates that Humboldt County prosecutors appear to handle more felony and misdemeanor cases per lawyer than is recommended by the American Bar Association. And both Mendocino and Lake counties have more prosecutors in their respective district attorney's offices.

Humboldt County Public Defender Kevin Robinson said the county's arrangement to hire Keat remotely from Southern California hasn't affected the courtrooms, and he doesn't see how it could.

As for Keat, when he's not enjoying semi-retirement with his wife of 29 years, he's editing 19th century newspaper stories for a digital newspaper archive. It's his hobby. He's the top text corrector -- by a lot -- at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

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