by Carolyn Chase
T he District Attorney is up for re-election with a field of three healthy challengers in the March 5 primary. But the general public really doesn't know what the D.A.'s office does. So, unfortunately, the election will turn on name recognition (money), endorsements (proxy thinking and proxy judgment) and scandal.
But before we get to the politics, the D.A. is an elected office to begin with so that there is some check and balance provided between the people and the enforcement of the laws of the State of California. The D.A. has the practical power over what and how to enforce the laws of the State in our County.
A District Attorney's office officially represents the People of the State of California. Public prosecutors bring criminal charges against suspects in courts of law. The San Diego County District Attorney's Office has the responsibility and authority to investigate and prosecute all felonies in San Diego County.
Most Powerful Tool
The most powerful tool that the D.A. has is the power of deciding what is worth spending the taxpayer's money on, i.e. what gets prosecuted. That is where the power of the office lies - in the power to back up and make real the threat of the law to coerce performance.
This incumbent D.A., Paul Pfingst, seems to have more of an interest in coddling business than in holding people to an enforceable standard.
To use a gross example: should the criminal justice system seek stiff jail sentences for those who will not separate out recyclables? Or should we deal with companies that expose workers and neighboring low-voting areas to toxic fumes?
The current DA's office will tend to go after the "deadbeat recyclers" but will only pursue the most egregious industrial violations, and only when they have a very strong case that the action was undertaken maliciously. Status quo pollution stays status quo.
On His Watch
In addition to bias in the choice of casework that is done, Pfingst is facing scandal that he has managed to downplay for several years.
This D.A. has tolerated unethical and unlawful practices. The head of the fraud unit, which prosecutes real estate fraud, used the secretarial staff to forge real estate documents, and ran his own real estate business with the resources of the DA's office. The wrongdoing by Peter Longanbach who was personally selected by Pfingst - continued for two years after the Pfinsgt was informed of it. Pfingst even promoted Longanbach after the wrongdoing had been reported to him. It didn't stop until the Attorney General conducted a search warrant raid on the D.A.'s office in early 2000. The AG prosecuted and Longanbach plead guilty to felony theft charges and is now awaiting sentence. Longanbach was also involved in a scheme to hide evidence in a murder trial that was ultimately exposed when a key witness testified she was told by Longanbach to lie.
In another case, the DA's office was found to have covered up a sex scandal in which a career criminal was regularly picked up from jail and transported to the D.A.'s office to have sex with his girlfriend and/or wife in exchange for giving favorable testimony; not just any testimony but the crucial testimony in a murder trial where the fact that these favors were granted might have undermined the believability of this witness. Four judges found this to be "gross prosecutorial misconduct."
Pfingst has reduced, dismantled or eliminated both the political corruption unit and environmental enforcement unit. 70% of the Deputy District Attorney's Association, the voice of the working prosecutor, voted "no confidence" in Pfingst, which tells you a lot about where office morale is at.
The San Diego Police Department Association has backed an opponent of his, the Sheriff's stand officially neutral. Pfingst has been caught lying in public, by cops, and has then turned to call them bald faced liars. Insiders have called him "gratuitously vicious."
There are three other candidates in the race.
Mark Pettine, currently working in the D.A.'s office, understands the problems from the inside. Described as "smart, stubborn and dedicated to doing the right thing," Pettine is said to have good judgement in criminal cases.
Judge Bonnie Dumanis (www.Dumanisforda.com) is a well-respected judge whose major work has been with Drug Court. Those in a position to know describe her as a good administrator who works very well in consensus building and is "willing to let the hammer fall on the unsalvageable and willing to spend a lot of time salvaging the salvageable."
Mike Aguirre (www.Mike4DA.com) is the wild card in the race. The venerable Lionel Van Deerlin described Mike at his campaign announcement as, "brilliant," "honest," and aggressive.. With this man in charge, fewer important cases will be kissed off in lazy plea bargains." With an impressive history of successful prosecutions as a federal attorney and then a string of successful class action lawsuits Van Deerlin notes that "Mike wont be easy to fool either by his own staff or the opposition."
Political insiders characterize the field as follows:
With Pfingst, if it makes the voters heart jump it leads. (The Opportunist)
With Pettine, if it bleeds (i.e. violence against people) it leads. (The Guardian)
With Dumanis, if it helps lets do it. (The Idealist)
With Aguirre, it's let get the all bad guys - politicians and corporate crime included. (The Populist)
The Sierra Club endorsed Mike Aguirre due to his impressive case history and track record against white collar criminals, the mob and polluters. But its clear that, with only a bit of research, any one of the challengers would be an improvement on the incumbent.