When handsome, young defense lawyer Paul Gallegos upset 20-year incumbent District Attorney Terry Farmer in 2002, many saw it as a watershed moment for Humboldt County politics -- a landmark cultural shift away from the good ol' boy conservativism that had dominated local government for generations in favor of stricter environmental accountability, a healthy respect for civil liberties and just general coolness (he surfs!). During his first few months in office, Gallegos made good on his campaign promise to shake things up by loosening medical marijuana guidelines and filing a massive fraud lawsuit against the Pacific Lumber Co.
Nearly eight years later, the DA's office -- and the politics surrounding it -- have indeed changed profoundly. But if there's a defining event from the Gallegos era thus far, it's not his election but rather the failed recall attempt launched just three months into his first term. Funded by unscrupulous Palco CEO (hence defendant) Charles Hurwitz, the recall effort drove a wedge deep into existing fissures, both in the community -- already polarized by the timber wars -- and within the DA's office, where staff remained bitter about Farmer's ousting.
For supporters, the recall attempt turned Gallegos into a martyr. They viewed him as a courageous prosecutor being persecuted for standing up to corruption. Critics, meanwhile, charged that he was overreaching with the Palco suit at the expense of violent crime prosecutions. Though Gallegos handily defeated the recall effort, his detractors continued to accumulate cannon fodder: The Palco case was thrown out before reaching trial; the DA's office suffered an exodus of experienced prosecutors, some leaving voluntary, others being canned; and in 2005, a Grand Jury report lambasted Gallegos for ineffectual leadership. Yet supporters stood by him, and in 2006, Gallegos defeated challenger Worth Dikeman (a Farmer loyalist who'd offered himself as a potential replacement during the recall try), thus marking his third election victory in four years.
In some circles, the discord of Gallegos' first term has quietly festered during his second. Fault-finders have assiduously noted every plea bargain and loss -- the Palco suit in particular, and also the case against two Eureka police officers for the shooting death of Cheri Lyn Moore. (The officers were acquitted after the judge ruled that Gallegos had misinformed the Grand Jury.) Supporters cite these same cases as evidence of Gallegos' integrity; win or lose, they say, his decisions to prosecute reflect a refusal to be cowed by money or power. And they point to notable convictions, like that of corrupt Blue Lake Police Chief David Gundersen, as well as successes like the Curtis Huntzinger case, in which DA investigators garnered a full confession of child murder, 18 years after the fact.
Gallegos is now in the midst of a tough reelection campaign against two challengers, both of whom carry wounds from the battles of the past eight years: Allison Jackson, 50, a former Humboldt County Deputy DA now with Eureka's Harland Law Firm, and Paul Hagen, 55, a former environmental circuit prosecutor now with Eureka firm Bragg, Perlman, Russ, Stunich and Eads. (A third challenger, former Deputy DA Kathleen Bryson, dropped out of the race last month citing family obligations.) In preparation for the June 8 primary election, each of these three lawyers sat down with the Journal to argue his or her case, looking to win over the jury of undecided voters.
Allison Jackson spent 10 years at the Humboldt County DA's Office, earning a reputation as a tough-as-nails trial attorney specializing in child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence cases. Gallegos fired her in 2004, shortly after the recall attempt. He was (and is) legally prevented from explaining why, but Jackson suggested, in the heat of the 2006 election, that she'd been fired in order to protect a defense attorney who presented forged evidence in court. Gallegos vehemently denied this. ("Forged Documents and Six Pounds of Weed," May 18, 2006).
She's now one of four partners at the Harland Law Firm, a 62-year-old civil firm housed in a handsomely renovated mechanics garage in Eureka. At the far end of the main hall, past bookshelves and ficus trees reaching from the parquet floor toward the steel crossbeams in the vaulted ceiling, lies Jackson's office. Sitting behind her large mahogany desk on a recent Wednesday morning, Jackson said her decision to run for DA was not easy.
"I love my work here," she said. "This building is beautiful. My partners are wonderful. My clients are wonderful. I absolutely adore my staff." But she said she's been approached by literally hundreds of people in recent years -- in restaurants, banks, the post office -- all asking her to please run for DA. Jackson herself has been one of Gallegos' fiercest critics, questioning his knowledge of the law, challenging his office- and case-management abilities and condemning what she calls a revolving door of plea bargains. In the end, she said, her decision came down to "whether I could sleep in my skin at night."
One of Jackson's main passions as a litigator is protecting victims' rights, a motive she traces back to the tragic and sudden death of her mother and stepfather at the hands of a drunk driver when she was 21. This occurred shortly before the Victims' Bill of Rights was passed in 1982, so Jackson was not allowed to testify at the sentencing of the killer -- an experience that firmly established her sympathy for victims. With her parents gone, she decided to abandon her dreams of becoming an anthropologist and wildlife photographer and instead became a lawyer, as her grandmother had been.
The Victims' Bill of Rights not only expanded victims' involvement in criminal trials, it also set limits on plea bargains. Therein lies Jackson's most significant criticism of Gallegos. She believes that many of the deals he's struck not only shortchanged victims and the public of justice, they were in fact illegal. She cites California Penal Code 1192.7, which prohibits plea bargaining in cases involving serious felonies unless a) the evidence is insufficient to prove the case, b) a witness disappears or c) the plea deal won't substantially change the sentence.
Gallegos, she charged, has violated this statute countless times, most recently in the cases of Robert Bradshaw and Tracey Williams, both of whom were allowed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter rather than murder, and James Stanko, who pleaded to murder but not the string of armed robberies that preceded it. "It's not any DA's role in a serious or violent felony to usurp the jury function," Jackson said. "If you have the evidence and the witnesses, you have to go forward." As to how such allegedly unlawful pleas are allowed to occur, Jackson said, "I think there's a fundamental lack of knowledge on [Gallegos'] part. I just can't explain it any other way."
She also criticized Gallegos' "dismantling" of his senior-level deputy staff, saying she's personally had to counsel inexperienced prosecutors from his office -- and once even drafted a motion for one. There's clearly a personal element to this gripe, since Jackson herself was among the deputy DA casualties. But she said the true tragedy of these departures (when combined with the time-consuming Palco case) was the effect they had on victims' advocacy programs like the Child Abuse Services Team and domestic violence prosecutions.
The latter, Jackson said in another serious accusation, took a major step backward recently thanks to Gallegos' handling of the Gundersen case, in which the Blue Lake police chief's wife claimed she'd been repeatedly drugged and raped, only to recant her testimony in court. Jackson believes this change of heart stemmed from her treatment as a witness. "The DA's office threatened this woman with arrest if she didn't testify," Jackson said. "They were engaging in the same type of abusive, harsh tactics the abuser was." The fears of every rape victim -- reprisal, badgering, public humiliation -- were all realized in that case, Jackson said. And she's convinced the subsequent county-wide drop in reported rapes is not coincidence.
"I intend to win this election," she said, "and I intend to change all of that."
Paul Hagen doesn't drink coffee. Or alcohol, soda ... not even tea. The human body is mostly water, he reasons, so drinking anything else pollutes it. Nevertheless, he agreed to meet outside Arcata's Cafe Brio on a recent overcast morning, having skipped his weekly dawn swim through Stone Lagoon. One-on-one conversations with Hagen can be intense. When answering questions, he often looks off to the side, eyes darting as if tractor beams within them are retrieving data from the nearby sidewalk. He measures his words carefully, until, with his full thought more or less reeled in, he'll turn, stare you straight in the eye and finish his point with articulate precision.
This no-nonsense disposition has served him well in court. From 1998 to 2006 he worked as an environmental circuit prosecutor for the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA). Deputized in Humboldt, Del Norte, Lake and, for a time, Mendocino counties, Hagen became the region's top environmental prosecutor, investigating corporations large and small for such crimes as air and water pollution, archaeological looting and soil erosion. He won cases against Lockheed Martin, Louisiana Pacific and Pacific Lumber -- twice.
In July 2006, however, he too was fired under politically charged circumstances. Hagen is convinced that his termination was retribution for questioning the endorsement process of the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, which ultimately backed Gallegos for reelection. Gallegos later acknowledged that he'd written two letters regarding Hagen's work performance to the CDAA -- at their request -- but he told the Arcata Eye that Hagen's theory was "way off the deep end."
Hagen comes from Midwestern, blue-collar roots. He attended Northern Illinois University, where he served in student government and later interned for Congressman John B. Anderson. After graduating from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Hagen moved with his wife to California, where he worked in construction, law clerking and various other jobs before being hired as an environmental analyst at Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro, then the state's largest law firm. Prior to his work with the CDAA, Hagen taught environmental law at Cal State Hayward, San Francisco State University and S.F. City College and worked for the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office. He now serves as Trinidad's city attorney and handles a number of other clients, including the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District and the California Teachers Association.
Hagen spoke of his track record in environmental prosecution with pride: "I did things nobody had done, went places nobody had gone, had successes nobody had tried." He recalled a case against Lockheed Martin for hazardous waste remediation violations. "I filed a very unique motion asserting that corporations have no Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution," he said. "They fought it and lost."
In Hagen's quest to become DA, some have pointed to his lack of experience prosecuting serious violent felonies. Hagen counters that the same criticism could have been leveled at Gallegos before he got the job. Besides, he said, the rules of criminal jury trials are always the same, as is the goal: Get out the truth. And there he feels confident. "I learned early on that if you're going to be a prosecutor, you have to be fearless in the face of the enemy," he said.
Regarding Gallegos, Hagen questioned his judgment and competence in the Cheri Lyn Moore and Palco cases, pointing out that in both, a judge ruled that he'd failed to meet minimum standards to justify a trial. "You can say whatever you want about courage and willingness to take on corporations," Hagen said. "I've taken on Palco and beat them -- criminally and civilly." He also questioned (as did Jackson) Gallegos' decision to arm his investigators with AR-15 assault rifles. "It boggles my mind why they need them," he said.
While serving on the Arcata Planning Commission, Hagen helped to rework the city's marijuana ordinance so officials can combat grow houses based on land use code violations. He suggested this approach can be used elsewhere -- including at the county level -- and added that, if weed is legalized in November, it will allow local jurisdictions even greater leeway to regulate the industry. The only appropriate role for the District Attorney in that process, Hagen said, is to ensure that language in each ordinance provides a clear path for enforcement.
In closing, Hagen argued that being in tune with community priorities -- having your finger on the pulse of the jury pool -- is key to success as a DA. "I think I fit the county well and could do a very good job as DA," he said.
In any election, the incumbent is subject to criticism of his tenure, an analysis that can be particularly thankless for district attorneys since, as Gallegos has said, the courts rarely produce satisfied customers. "People can criticize me for everything in this job," he said last week during an interview in the DA's office library, on the fourth floor of the county courthouse. "That's the way it works. There isn't a decision I make that doesn't get criticized by every participant -- because to the defendant I'm being too harsh. To law enforcement victims, too soft. The defense attorney, too harsh."
What's important, he argued, is that under his administration violent crime has been reduced despite drastic cuts to the office budget. In debates and on his campaign Web site he has pointed to statistics showing the rate of violent crimes -- including homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- between 1999 and 2008, the most recent year for which the state Department of Justice has compiled statistics. In 2003, Gallegos' first year in office, the rate dropped a whopping 23 percent. By 2008 it remained 12 percent lower than in Farmer's final year.
The significance and interpretation of these stats have been questioned by Gallegos' challengers who argue that, first of all, violent crime has actually risen 13.5 percent since 2003's big drop. More importantly, they say, the factors that influence crime rates are far too nebulous and complex to justify any one person claiming responsibility. But Gallegos, who was called a "lightweight" when he first ran for the office, stuck to his guns. "People didn't think we could bring down crime. I tell you, and I've told everyone, we can." The stats, he said, are "an indication that my office continues to work well with law enforcement, despite all this hyperbole out there to the contrary."
Gallegos dismissed Jackson's allegations of unlawful plea deals as patently false, saying the court maintains a system of checks and balances to ensure such deals are appropriate. Furthermore, he said, with about 10,000 cases coming through the office each year and only five courtrooms in which to try them, plea deals are not only a logistical necessity, they're often the best way to reach a swift conviction. "This is what plea bargains are," he said. "They're a bargain for the state [and] they're a bargain for the people."
Over the course of the interview, Gallegos was asked if, in retrospect, he would have done anything differently in the Palco, Gundersen or Cheri Lyn Moore cases. Each time he paused to consider before saying no. The charges were justified, he said, even if the court found otherwise. "We often disagree with the rulings, but we respect them."
Gallegos defended his marijuana prosecution guidelines, saying the debate has been polluted by falsehoods and red herrings. So-called "home invasions," for example, are actually robberies conducted during illegal business transactions, he said. Grow house vandalism is also a separate crime, he argued, one that shouldn't infringe on the rights of legitimate medical marijuana users.
When his opponents' objections to AR-15s came up, Gallegos simply said, "Crazy." He then popped out of his chair and said, "Come talk to Billy [Honsal, one of the DA investigators]." Swinging open the library door, Gallegos led the way through the office toward the investigation unit, arguing while he walked. "I'm elected here in the county, but I'm a state officer," he said. By extension, his investigative unit has authority above that of local law enforcement. "These guys are the only law enforcement officers who have jurisdiction everywhere in Humboldt County," he said. "They literally -- they're the top cops."
Rounding a corner, a group of men came into view: DA investigators gathered inside Investigator Wayne Cox's office, chatting and laughing while watching a video on the computer. When asked to justify their need for the AR-15s, the response was emphatic and unanimous. The unit has become more proactive under Gallegos and Chief Investigator Mike Hislop, Cox said. Several of the investigators recalled being shot at from long distances while in the field. The AR-15 may have a fierce reputation thanks to its association with the military, but the fact is, they said, it's the perfect tool for the job. "It's a superior weapon for our environment," said Investigator James Dawson.
When the Gundersen case came up again, Gallegos said, "We'll give you a show and tell." He, Honsal and Cox then proceeded to wheel out a library cart weighed down with heavy weaponry -- a partial take from the investigation of the former Blue Lake chief, who in addition to battering his wife had amassed a huge, illegal personal arsenal. Onto a table in the corner of the building they spread out the guns, covering its surface with Sig Sauer and Ruger handguns, AR-15s, a Heckler and Koch UMP submachine gun and more. The men took obvious delight in assembling this display, which was odd considering that just moments earlier they'd attested that their assault rifles were merely practical implements. They may well be, but there's obviously more to the allure.
Afterward, Gallegos continued with a tour through the office, bantering playfully with staff and showing off new technological upgrades. If there's any residual tension or bitterness here, it's not visible to the untrained eye. Among his personnel, Gallegos seemed happy and relaxed. Campaigning, by comparison, is just a hassle. "It's frustrating," he said. "But at the same time, it's just like a jury. You do your job, put in the evidence and let a jury decide."
For more information on the candidates, visit their Web sites:
Allison Jackson: aj4da.com
Paul Hagen: www.hagenforda.com
Paul Gallegos: votepaul.org