ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Fresh Air: New D.A. Paul Gallegos vows to shake things up

Story & photos by ANDREW EDWARDS

The District Attorney's office has a gorgeous view. Situated four stories up, on the southwest corner of the county courthouse, a large window looks out over the streets of Old Town, the boats bobbing at the docks of Woodley Island marina, the trees of Indian Island, the thin stretch of north spit.

There are two desks. One is lined by family pictures with an older-model laptop set up so that the user can look out the window between typing. The other -- of the broad dark-stained wooden variety -- faces a painting that nearly fills the opposite wall. It's a huge, blue-themed work, a sort of artistic exercise in civic pride. Buildings bloom in aesthetically pleasing directions. A row of people moves upwards in what appears to be the march of progress or something along those lines.

Just four years ago this was a jail cell and, by all accounts, a decrepit one. The bay was visible, but only from small, barred porthole-style windows, the inner glass more often than not smashed out by an angry inmate. Concrete floors, concrete walls, bare cells -- if someone told you you were going to get a corner office on the fourth floor, you wouldn't have been happy. But the new jail was built, and over the winter of 1998-99 the old one on the third and fourth floors of the courthouse was jackhammered out of existence. Walls were ripped out, floors resurfaced, constricted views replaced by sweeping vistas.

District Attorney Paul Gallegos swung into a waiting room outside his office on a recent weekday morning accompanied by another suit, the two in excited conversation. He was late for a 9:30 a.m. interview. After disappearing for a few minutes he came back out, alone and smiling.

"That's all right," he said with a firm handshake. "I have a 10 o'clock too, and now they'll have to wait."

Gallegos at his deskGallegos is a young 40, vigorous, well-dressed, charismatic, handsome. He talks and moves with a fluid sort of manic energy, like a big cat. He took off his coat, opened the shades and asked what the interview was going to be about. When he sat down the energy in his body became visible. He swiveled in his chair, pumped his eyebrows up and down, joked, pondered, hedged. He answered question after question, thoughtfully but playfully, clearly enjoying the role of a district attorney being interviewed by a reporter from a local paper, using his "bully pulpit," as he called it.

He remarked that people have called him the "anti-Terry Farmer," evidently referring to the fact that he has a decidedly more liberal political outlook than the former district attorney. But a more frequently used moniker -- and certainly a less flattering one -- is "lightweight." Perhaps the fact that people tend to underestimate him is an advantage (it hasn't hurt the current occupant of the White House). When Farmer was asked recently whether he had failed to take Gallegos seriously enough during last year's election, he said: "Nobody took him seriously."

And no one really gave him credit when -- in the biggest local political upset in memory -- he knocked Farmer off his pedestal, a man who'd won five straight elections dating back to 1982. It's a sign of Farmer's dominance as district attorney that political observers focused not on how Gallegos won but on how Farmer lost -- never mind that Gallegos skillfully exploited Farmer's vulnerability on a number of issues, ranging from medical marijuana to methamphetamines to violent crime.

During the campaign, Gallegos vowed to shake things up in an office that hadn't seen a change of management in 20 years. Now, more than six weeks after taking over, Gallegos said he's making good on his word.

"We're handling a lot of things differently than Terry Farmer's office did. There's an overall philosophy difference."

Which means?

"We are committed to equal enforcement, equal application of the laws regardless of status in the community or how long you've been here. I'm not maligning him, I'm just saying this is a principle we're committed to absolutely."

"We're trying to de-politicize [the decision-making process] as much as possible," he added.

It's hard to interpret these comments as anything but jabs at Farmer, but then maybe Gallegos was just hitting back. Farmer, after all, had this to say back in December after Gallegos announced the hiring of Tim Stoen, a veteran prosecutor from the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office: "He needed to appoint someone who knows something about the business."

Facing a challenge

As in any county, the office of the Humboldt County District Attorney is a powerful one -- the DA is both emblematically and in fact the chief law enforcement figure in the region. He oversees 15 attorneys and a support staff of 43 employees. The office prosecutes thousands of cases a year, and it is the place where, literally, life and death decisions -- whether to charge someone with murder or manslaughter, whether to go for the death penalty -- are routinely made.

It is not a job for winning friends, as Farmer knew too well. "You come into this job with a great pile of chips and goodwill and then you start making decisions and you piss people off," is the way he summed it up in an exit interview with the Journal shortly before stepping down.

Gallegos, it is clear, is not yet feeling the weight of the office. He said he's taking to it well, but only time will tell whether he's suited for the post. All that can be said now is that this is a man with a challenge on his hands.

Public Defender Jim Steinberg, Gallegos' legal adversary, pointed out that the staff attorneys under Gallegos almost uniformly supported Farmer during the election. "Common sense would tell you that it's a difficult situation to come into," Steinberg said.

Steinberg added that Gallegos has a steep learning curve to climb. "I think Paul will need to learn what prosecuting a case is all about."

Gallegos has a history of diving into new experiences. Born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, he was the ninth of 11 children. He excelled at wrestling in high school, and then attended the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, where he swam competitively. After graduating he went to Spain (where his family's roots are) and learned Spanish by totally immersing himself in the culture for several months. He returned to attend the University of LaVerne College of Law, also in LA, where he met his wife and future law partner, Joan Gallegos, also a ninth child.

The couple, who now have three children, the youngest less than a year old, practiced law in Southern California for several years. They first visited Humboldt County on Halloween in 1993. They fell in love with the area and decided they would relocate here in exactly two months. Sure enough, on Dec. 31, 1993, the couple arrived in Eureka to stay. They set up shop and did quite well. Paul taught himself how to surf, which according to his wife he still does regularly, leaving for the beach at 6 in the morning on weekends and returning by 9. They both rock climb, hike, rollerblade, skateboard, bike, ski. He decided to run for DA, according to his wife, after a period of soul searching, looking for a way he could give back more to the community, something that had been on his mind since they had had their first child. The couple's third child was born last April, the month after Gallegos unseated Farmer. He was sworn into office during the first week of January, and he hasn't stopped moving since, if not as quickly as he might like.

"It's been more evolutionary than revolutionary," he said, leaning back into his chair as he described his first several weeks. "It's made me come to terms with the fact that there's only so much time: so many hours in a day, so many days in a week. And then there are so many things that I have to do before I can articulate a policy on this and that or whatever."

He looked genuinely overwhelmed for a moment.

"The black and whites are easy, it's really the gray. It's finding a way to articulate the gray area."

A new medical pot policy

So far, Gallegos hasn't shown any confusion about how he wants to enforce Proposition 215, the state ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana and was supported by 56 percent of voters in 1996.

In his first significant act in office, Gallegos made good on a campaign promise and loosened up the county's medicinal marijuana policy. Under the new rules, the county allows for 99 plants and 3 pounds of marijuana per patient, up from 10 plants and 1 pound under Farmer.

Gallegos said the change has been in the works since March and is not as radical as some might think. "Right now people say, `99 plants?' and they think there's going to be this orchard," Gallegos said.

He said the key element of the policy is not the number of plants, but the area the plants are confined to -- 100 square feet, a relatively small space. Additionally, he said the 99-plant limit applies to "starts," which may or may not turn out to be the potent female plants. (The reason for the 99-plant ceiling, he explained, is that 100 plants is the point at which federal law enforcement usually becomes involved.)

Gallegos said that some local departments weren't thrilled with the new guidelines, but that things would be smoothed out soon. (The word on the street was that the Eureka Police Department was less than enthusiastic, but this could not be confirmed.) The Sheriff's Department, which under ex-sheriff Dennis Lewis once refused a judge's order to turn over medical marijuana to a patient, has not stood up and applauded. When asked his opinion, Sheriff Gary Philp said simply that there is no point in pursuing crimes that won't get prosecuted.

In the interview, Gallegos reiterated his vow that prosecuting recreational marijuana possession will not be a priority for his office.

"[Marijuana] cannot be a priority. Can't. Let's look at some of the priorities we have in this community. We had 14 homicides last year. The prevailing controlling factor in almost all those cases was methamphetamines, [their] distribution, or domestic family law sorts of issues.

"So certainly domestic violence, family law matters have to be a priority, certainly methamphetamines has to be a priority," he continued. With those sorts of concerns and a limited budget how can I say small-time, personal usage of marijuana should even get near that priority?"

Gallegos said that he was easing up on marijuana prosecution in part to free up more resources to deal with meth and other hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine. But, he emphasized, law enforcement can't do everything.

"You have to address both sides, supply and demand," he said, adding that he is lobbying for getting a methadone clinic set up in the county, to help wean addicts off heroin. Last year, Humboldt County led the state in per capita heroin-related deaths (see "Vicious Circle," Nov. 28).

Gallegos recently met with county mental health officials to discuss the methamphetamine problem.

The environmental DA?

"We have legitimate and some would say severe environmental concerns in this community. That has to be a priority."

Such declarations, made in the midst of his interview with the Journal, suggest that Gallegos is passionate about protecting the environment -- and might aggressively prosecute polluters and others who violate environmental laws.

Further evidence is his hiring of Stoen as his chief lieutenant, filling a post that had been vacant for nearly 10 years. Stoen is a specialist in white collar crime, identity theft and embezzlement. But he is currently prosecuting a five-count felony case against two loggers charged with circumventing state forest practice laws (usually, forest practice law violations are treated as misdemeanors). Stoen is still working on the case, a holdover from his time in Mendocino. It is scheduled to go to trial as soon as the judge recovers from surgery.

"Part of my deal with Paul is that I would continue that case," Stoen said, speaking by phone from his office here in Humboldt.

Thanks to Farmer, Gallegos already has an experienced environmental attorney on staff, Paul Hagen,

who has investigated and successfully prosecuted environmental violators.

Gallegos expressed his philosophy regarding environmental infractions this way: "When you don't internalize your costs and you engage in business activity so the community and others have to pay for your business activities as a consequence, then on many levels I take issue with that."

Though he declined to be more specific, he was almost certainly referring to the Pacific Lumber Co., which has repeatedly been accused of damaging the property of those living downstream from its timberlands through overlogging.

Last fall the company settled with 22 residents in the North Fork Elk River for an undisclosed sum, and has been under a court order since the late 1990s to deliver drinking water to residences there because of sediment contamination. The company also paid out $3.3 million to 33 residents of the tiny town of Stafford after a debris torrent roared off its lands on New Year's Day 1997 and buried half the town -- a particularly dramatic instance of a company externalizing its costs.

But what can he do about Pacific Lumber that Farmer couldn't -- or wouldn't -- do?

"To the extent that [there's a violation of] the law we can prosecute it. And there's a lot of failure to internalize costs that are violations of the law: pollution, allowing discharge to go in waterways, even sediment is a violation." He got an intense look on his face. "If we can prove the source and the cause, that's a violation of the law and we could -- we will prosecute it. If it's going on, we're interested in stopping it."

Balancing act

He stressed that all parties would get a fair shake.

"[The environment] is a balancing act; I think people understand that," Gallegos said. "[People] just want to make sure it's balanced."

In some cases the "balance" can be more precarious than others. And in the case of tree-sitters, it becomes more than just a metaphor.

Several options regarding the ongoing trespassing in the woods are under evaluation, according to Gallegos. The first is whether or not to prosecute activists who, in their minds at least, were only enforcing a court order.

These activists, and others, interpreted an August court order by visiting Superior Court Judge John Golden as requiring a halt to logging on Pacific Lumber lands. The judge made his ruling after the California Department of Forestry failed to turn over to the court thousands of logging-related documents.

The company continued cutting in the face of the order, arguing that it did not apply to already-approved logging operations -- a position that seemed vindicated in December when Golden essentially negated his earlier ruling and exempted 100 timber harvest plans to avoid causing undue "economic hardship" to the company.

The whole affair produced a spate of tree-sits that continue to this day -- and which present Gallegos with a tricky challenge as several trespassing cases regarding tree-sitters are pending.

Gallegos admitted that he was struggling with what to do. One option is to simply not prosecute, but he said he was worried about setting a bad precedent.

"If I give an exception where does it end?" he wondered.

Gallegos is also trying to come to grips with whether or not it is legal to risk the life of tree-sitters by forcibly removing them from their perches. In a current case activist Jamie Leroy Harris is suing Pacific Lumber and several of its employees for tying his hands behind his back and lowering him by rope from 200 feet up a tree.

"If it were against the law I would prosecute it; I'm not sure that it's against the law," Gallegos said. "There's a certain amount of activity one can engage in to protect their lawful rights, their property rights. It's a dangerous business across the board."

He said several times that, to his mind, "Personal injury far outweighs property interests, it has to," but he has yet to articulate a policy. He has been in contact with both sides, however, and is even considering a climb with PL climber Eric Shatz to get a feel for the risks involved.

Gallegos seems to relish the challenge of weighing macro-level policy issues.

"Frankly that's one of the most enriching and exciting parts about being an attorney: those moral issues you have to wrestle with," he said. "If you don't wring your hands and you don't wrestle, you're not doing your job. It should be difficult."

The new guy

Like all new administrators, Gallegos is making several structural changes in his office to streamline the decision-making process regarding whether or not to prosecute cases. He's also seeking to formalize the process to make it more objective and less political.

Additionally, he's trying to divide his office up along "chains of accountability" so problems can be more efficiently dealt with, and so he can have a better idea of what's going on. Attorneys have been put in charge of different types of cases such as felony prosecutions or juvenile prosecutions, and Gallegos meets regularly with them to discuss successes, failures and how things can be improved. It seems fairly basic, but according to him, nothing like that was in place before; it was "sort of a free flow."

Despite rumors to the contrary, no one has quit since he arrived, though several of the old guard skipped out beforehand. Overall he seemed pleased with the staff he had inherited.

"Staff's good. I think we're working. You know, I've been a boss before; I've been an administrator before [in my private practice]," Gallegos said. "In any human interaction there are going to be ups and downs. We haven't gotten to the downs yet, but I'm pretty sure we're gonna last through them. It's gone really well."

Many people voted for Gallegos for a change of pace. After 20 years of Farmer people wanted someone different. Of course some are worried he's going to rock the boat: He's young, he's liberal, he's inexperienced. But people said the same thing about Farmer when he was elected back in 1983.

Sheriff Philp, who'd already been in county law enforcement for 10 years at that time, had this recollection: "I remember when Terry Farmer came in. It was like `We got this new guy coming in, what's gonna happen now?' There [was] talk about how he was kind of liberal. It's kind of the same thing that's happening now. Any time someone's been in office for a long time, 16 to 20 years, everybody gets used to the way things are, so when it changes: `Oh my goodness, is the sky gonna fall?' And I don't really think that happens.

"You have your ideas, your philosophies and things you want to do," Philp went on. "But everyone has to remember you're still within a guideline, a framework of things: people you're gonna answer to, laws that you know you have to go by. It's not like you're gonna come in and create your own law, and say now we're just gonna do it this way. You just say, `Well, I can do this better but I still have these obligations and such.' I think you need to keep that in mind. There's only so much you can do."

So what will Gallegos do? He's worked on Prop. 215 enforcement but the rest is yet to come. He seems ready to err on the side of boldness.

"Certainly I'm idealistic, I have these lofty ideals. At the same time you have to be realistic," Gallegos said. "Am I a liberal? Who the heck knows, but do I think of myself as a humanitarian? Yeah. I understand, I know I'm just like everyone else out there -- at least I operate on that assumption. All sorts of failures, good hopes, good aspirations, trying to do my best. Gonna make mistakes. It's whether the non-mistakes outweigh the mistakes.

"After all," he had said earlier, grinning because he knew it was cliche, "the room for improvement is the biggest room in anyone's house."

-- Editor Keith Easthouse contributed to this report.




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