The Morning Report
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Part five of a five-part series.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office proudly notes that in 2008 and 2009 it received prestigious Workplace Excellence awards as one of San Diego’s most outstanding places to work.
It appears things have improved significantly for employees since former District Attorney Paul Pfingst left office at the end of 2002.
While other public agencies scramble to cut services and jobs, the district attorney’s budget is up 65 percent since Bonnie Dumanis took the helm in 2003, from $91 million to $150 million in the fiscal year that ended in June. The number of lawyers is up almost 10 percent during the same period, from 292 to 320.
Dumanis, with her vast political power, has managed to successfully steer the office through a difficult economy by winning federal grants and persuading county supervisors not to cut funding levels.
While there are more lawyers in the office, there appears to be less work to do. Dumanis goes to trial about half as often as her predecessor, according to at least one measure, and trials are what take manpower in a prosecutor’s shop.
And, even though crime is at a 25-year low, Dumanis’ office is still filing about the same amount of felony cases each year. She’s settling at a higher rate than Pfingst, boosting conviction rates but lessening the need for a deluxe squad of prosecutors.
Dumanis lists her 70 percent case-settlement rate — meaning deals instead of trials — as one of her biggest accomplishments because it “keeps police officers on the street instead of testifying in court with great savings to the taxpayer and all agencies in the criminal justice system.”
“This is not a contest,” Dumanis said in an interview.
She and some of her employees have also been criticized privately by law enforcement officials, some current and former deputy district attorneys, plus some defense attorneys and public defenders, for raises — including a $56,000 increase over three years for Dumanis — and perks like take-home cars and a new $84,000 office gym.
“Everyone’s in freeze mode, even though Bonnie has hired and promoted,” said Deputy Public Defender Joe Kownacki, president of the county Public Defenders Association. Both agencies are funded by the county Board of Supervisors, but the District Attorney’s Office has other funding sources also. “There’s way too much money spent on that side. That place is way overfunded.”
Dave Hendren, president of the Deputy District Attorneys Association, praised Dumanis for managing the office during difficult economic times.
“It’s got to be one of the most trying times possible to run an office of this size with dramatic budget cuts. Now with the economy the way it’s been there have been draconian cuts,” Hendren said. “She’s managed to keep the office running well and allowed us to do our jobs.”
Beefing Up the Executive Staff
Dumanis has considerably expanded her executive staff, putting together a public relations army that is the talk of the law enforcement and political worlds.
Dumanis’ executive staff includes four chief deputies (Pfingst had one), five public affairs officials (Pfingst had two), and a lobbyist and an office historian (Pfingst had neither).
The historian, Steve Silva, whose official title is “staff officer,” was Dumanis’ clerk when she was a judge. He said part of his job is preserving office history by photographing events — such as court hearings, press conferences and parties — and archiving photos and documents, both past and present. The other part is not related to office history.
The biggest criticism is focused on the public affairs team, in particular three officials who are considered by some current and former deputies, law enforcement officials and defense attorneys to be political emissaries and an extravagance.
“There’s this PR army that’s just amazing,” said a law enforcement official who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “It’s like dealing with the Obama White House. They get on message and it is out there and it’s impressive. There is a price tag that comes with that.”
Dumanis said her reorganization has increased efficiency in the office. And, the three public affairs staffers in question replaced higher-paid community lawyers. She credits them with handling important programs like identity theft, elder abuse and recidivism.
“They’re my eyes and ears in the community, and they also help in terms of policy decisions,” Dumanis said. “They make about half as much as the deputy DAs make. A lot of people when they make criticisms like that don’t know what these people do.”
She said the reorganization was necessary and long overdue, since the previous structure had been in place for more than 60 years.
“I don’t think we are management heavy. With over 300 lawyers, almost 1,000 employees, you’ve got to have more accountability and more oversight of the issues because one chief deputy can’t possibly be on top of all those things,” Dumanis said. Many of her deputies think the office is managed well.
The district attorney has also managed to get pay increases for herself through the Board of Supervisors. Including the pay hike she was set to receive at the end of December, she has seen her salary increase 30 percent, or $56,138, since fiscal year 2006-2007.
With the latest raise, she will make $240,739 — more than the governor of California and significantly higher than the $150,000 salary of predecessor Pfingst. Plus, she earns about $67,000 in benefits annually.
About 173 of Dumanis’ employees, including about 30 managers and members of her executive staff, have take-home cars. That’s about 50 more total cars than under Pfingst, and only two of his executives had cars. The county Public Defenders Office has 10 take-home cars, according to Kownacki, the union president.
The office declined to give names of those with cars, citing security as the reason.
“It’s a sore point with a lot of people in the county,” the law enforcement official said of the cars. “They see those nice Maximas, those nice cars being driven essentially by executives in the DA’s office and that’s a lot of cars, since they have so many executives.”
A new $84,641 gym in the downtown Hall of Justice was paid for with money seized from criminals, usually in drug cases. Agencies are required to spend those funds only in certain areas; they can’t be used for salaries. Levikow, the DA spokesman, said it’s a great way to keep employees healthy and productive, but critics in the Public Defender’s Office said it’s yet another extravagance.
“The purpose of the gym is for the health and well being of our employees, many of whom cannot afford a gym membership,” said Levikow, the DA’s spokesman. “Studies have shown that healthy employees are more productive and have a lower absentee rate.”
Meanwhile, her deputies are now feeling the pinch. Dumanis announced to her lawyers in October that there would be no more promotions or hiring until at least the fall of 2011.
The Numbers on Trials
Current and former prosecutors and defense lawyers said fewer trials in the context of a significantly larger budget and staff begs these questions: Why do they need so many lawyers?
And, are they settling more cases and avoiding trials to boost the conviction rate?
Dumanis’ office says its 94.1 percent conviction rate is among the highest in the state.
The Pfingst administration reported raising the conviction rate from 89 percent to 92 percent by 2001, but it’s difficult to compare the two administrations because it’s unclear how the Pfingst numbers were calculated.
Here’s a breakdown of the trial stats:
According to a report from the Pfingst administration, his lawyers went to trial in felony cases a high of 850 times in 1997 and a low of 550 times in 2000.
By contrast, Dumanis’ numbers are significantly lower — a high of 432 in 2006 and a low of 370 in 2004. Even Pfingst’s lowest year exceeds Dumanis’ highest by 27 percent.
The state’s Administrative Office of the California Courts also found that trials are down under Dumanis.
Felony trials dropped from a high of 583 in fiscal year 1997-1998 under Pfingst to a low of 224 in FY 2003-2004 under Dumanis.
The office receives its numbers directly from the courts, which are compelled by law to submit them, and the information is used for court budgeting purposes.
Dumanis’ office expressed doubts about the reliability of both the state’s numbers and the Pfingst report because the state’s computer systems are antiquated, and the DA’s case management system was in its infancy under Pfingst.
Deputy District Attorney Dave Greenberg, a specialist in statistics who has worked for both Pfingst and Dumanis, said there’s no doubt there have been fewer trials under Dumanis.
Greenberg said he believes the number of felony trials has dropped in part because tougher sentencing laws, such as the 1994 three-strikes law, meaning offenders have been more interested in making deals.
Another motivator for defendants to make deals was Proposition 36, which starting in 2001 allowed non-violent drug offenders to avoid long prison terms. Defendants have been more motivated to take a deal for a lesser charge to remain eligible for Prop. 36, which keeps them out of jail, Greenberg said.
“I think the increased exposure to longer periods of (prison) time and less conduct credit are causing more defendants to plead guilty,” Greenberg said. “Now they’re more inclined to want to negotiate a case.”
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