We’ve been asked one question a lot in the days since former Southeastern Economic Development Corp. officials Carolyn Y. Smith and Dante Dayacap were charged with embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds: Why didn’t San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis prosecute this case?

Back in 2008, when the SEDC scandal was first breaking, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced at a press conference that he had asked Dumanis to investigate the alleged wrongdoing at the agency. Sanders’ move came after a city commissioned audit found SEDC’s compensation practices had risen “to the level of fraud.”

As I pointed out recently, Dumanis has a special Public Integrity Unit that she created back in 2007, before the SEDC scandal broke.

I put the question to Dumanis’ spokesman, Steve Walker, in an email.

His response:

The Attorney General’s Office is the appropriate agency to handle this prosecution. Since this is a pending case, the District Attorney’s Office will have no further comment at this time.

The California Attorney General’s Office does prosecute plenty of people accused of misusing public funds. The state AG investigated the wrongdoing at the city of Bell, for example.

Gary Schons, who heads up the local office of the attorney general, wouldn’t go into the matter when I called him. He simply said that his office also has a specialty in prosecuting these sorts of cases.

But, while the AG is an appropriate agency to do the prosecution, it’s unclear why Walker would categorize the AG as the appropriate agency. In other words, why is the AG more appropriate than the DA’s Public Integrity Unit?

The case, which focuses on a clandestine system of bonuses we uncovered in this story back in 2008, fits the stated scope of the unit, which Dumanis created specifically to root out misuse of public funds and corruption by public and elected officials.

Smith and Dayacap were highly paid, high ranking public officials. (Both made far more than the mayor in 2007.)

Why the AG brought the case instead of Dumanis is unlikely to become public.

As a rule, prosecutors don’t discuss pending cases because they don’t want to give the impression that they’re attempting to try the case in the media, said Professor Heidi Rummel, a former prosecutor and expert in criminal law at the University of Southern California.

Prosecutors want “to avoid any potential unfairness or prejudices to the defendant before he has his day in court,” Rummel said.

That Dumanis’ office isn’t prosecuting the case is irrelevant because, as a public prosecutor, she represents the government as much as her colleagues at the Attorney General’s Office, Rummel said. As such, she should be as wary of prejudicing the case by what she says publicly as she would be if her office was prosecuting it.

The precaution of not talking about a case extends not just to the case itself, but also to the reasons why a prosecutor did or didn’t take the case on, Rummel said.

Complicating the SEDC matter is the fact that the original investigation wasn’t done by the DA or the AG or even any state agency. It was done by the FBI, which usually teams with U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute the subjects of its investigations.

I learned in court on Wednesday that Dayacap had received a “target letter” from the U.S. Attorney’s Office more than a year ago. But at some point between then and now, the federal government decided not to prosecute and instead the case ended up at the state level.

(FBI spokesman Darryl Foxworth wouldn’t comment on the case either.)

Certainly, the passing-around of the Smith/Dayacap prosecution has confused the two defendant’s lawyers. Jerry Coughlan, who is defending Smith, and Marc Carlos, who’s representing Dayacap, both told me on Wednesday that they had no idea the Attorney General’s Office was involved in the case before their clients were served with arrest warrants.

If I find out any more about why Schons, not Dumanis, brought the case, I’ll pass it along.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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