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District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ website for her recently announced mayoral campaign waxes lyrical about the prosecutor’s protection of the public, high conviction rates and strong managerial and organizational skills.
Not mentioned in the list of accomplishments is the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, a crack team of lawyers Dumanis set up with much fanfare in the spring of 2007 as a weapon against San Diego’s image as a den of political iniquity and corruption.
Indeed, four years after the unit was created, San Diegans would be forgiven for wondering whether it actually still exists. Since the controversial — and largely botched — prosecution of Chula Vista Councilman Steve Castaneda in 2008, Dumanis’ team of anti-corruption lawyers has been remarkably low-profile.
Dumanis says the unit has hardly been slacking off. Her office provided a list of 88 public integrity prosecutions since 2007 as evidence that complaints are being investigated. And Dumanis and her public integrity czar Leon Schorr stressed that most of the work of the Public Integrity Unit is investigative and doesn’t necessarily result in prosecutions.
But 85 of the 88 prosecutions listed by Dumanis involved rank-and-file public employees, not politicians or elected officials, who were the original stated targets of the Public Integrity Unit. Lumped into the successes of the unit are cases against police officers and city employees, and for attorney misconduct.
In four years, three elected officials have been prosecuted by Dumanis’ office and, so far, only one of those prosecutions has resulted in punitive action: Earlier this year former Encinitas Mayor Dan Dalager was fined $1,000 for receiving discounted kitchen appliances from a resident he assisted while in office.
Dumanis proposed the Public Integrity Unit as a new and necessary weapon in the local prosecutorial arsenal, and warned crooked politicians that she would be watching them, and that they’d better behave.
Driving home the point that this was to be a unit that would specifically target politicians, Dumanis said at the same press conference that she would no longer be endorsing political candidates, and that her office would not be used as a political pawn. She later endorsed in several important races, including the 2008 city attorney’s race, in which she backed Jan Goldsmith against Mike Aguirre.
Dumanis argues that her message to San Diego’s politicians hit home.
The investigations that the D.A.’s office has conducted may not have resulted in many of the sort of convictions that make headlines, she said, but the mere existence of the unit has been a deterrent against corruption.
“I think our unit and our prosecutors are doing their job,” she said. “I think we’re holding people accountable, I think they’re worried about being held accountable and that they know that they need to toe the line.”
Public Integrity Unit investigations have also had an educational role to play, Dumanis said. By investigating the actions of officials and the rules of political agencies that allow those actions, and advising agencies and individuals on their ethical conduct, she said, attorneys have been able to actively preempt corruption.
As any follower of local politics knows, however, there’s been no shortage of scandal in San Diego since 2007. In that time, high-profile public figures in San Diego have been accused of misdeeds or ousted under accusations of cronyism and corruption. And the San Diego Ethics Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission have been busy levying tens of thousands of dollars a year in fines against individuals and political groups.
That may be true, Dumanis said, but there’s a big difference between doing something unethical and doing something that a prosecutor can bring criminal charges against you for. That’s a distinction often lost on both the public and the media, she said.
“Scandal and provable criminal cases are two different things,” Dumanis said.
Dumanis blamed the media for another misconception: She said the role of the Public Integrity Unit has been misconstrued by the media to only include prosecutions against politicians.
In reality, she said, the unit is responsible for prosecuting anyone who works for the public in some way. That’s why the list her office provided of 88 public integrity cases includes so many cases against rank-and file employees. The list includes “cases involving elected or appointed public officials, government employees committing crimes on the job, misuse of public funds or resources, fraud on the court or attorney misconduct,” according to an email from spokesman Steve Walker.
Included in that list is the D.A.’s prosecution of Rogelio Najera, Jr. a city of San Diego employee charged with embezzling more than $100,000 from the Robb Field Recreation Center and another case against Anthony Arevalos, a San Diego Police officer charged with eliciting sexual favors from women during traffic stops. The office also counted attorney misconduct cases as falling within the public integrity definition.
However, the 2007 press conference, and the corresponding press release her office issued at the time, defined the targets of the unit more narrowly.
“This unit will investigate and prosecute allegations of criminal misconduct among elected officials, politicians and their staff,” Dumanis said at the press conference. The press release said the unit would “investigate allegations of criminal misconduct among elected officials, candidates for office and campaign officials.”
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said local prosecutors in California usually keep a low profile when it comes to public integrity and ethics investigations of politicians. Hunting out corrupt politicians isn’t always a smart move for rising district attorneys, Stern said.
“Typically, it’s a no-win in terms of advancing your career and moving into other political positions because you’re alienating the people that are going to help you,” Stern said.
Dumanis’ office continues to prosecute Kathleen Sterling, an elected member of the Tri-City Healthcare Board, accused of taking bribes and using her office for financial gain.
In 2008, Chula Vista Councilman Steve Castaneda was also accused by the Public Integrity Unit of using his office for financial gain, but investigators found no wrongdoing by the councilman. Castaneda was then charged with perjury for allegedly lying to the grand jury that investigated him. A jury acquitted him of most of the charges and hung on two of them, which Dumanis chose not to pursue.
Castaneda accused Dumanis at the time of prosecuting him at the behest of his political rival, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox.
“Politics doesn’t enter into the decision-making of a prosecutor,” Dumanis said. “Whether or not someone likes me has not been my motivating factor.”
Please contact Will Carless directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.