District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis notched a victory Tuesday when the union representing over 300 deputy district attorneys endorsed her re-election campaign.

But the announcement came after two drama-filled weeks of behind-the-scenes politicking, and allegations that some attorneys were being strong-armed into supporting their boss.

In particular, emails sent from deputy district attorneys to co-workers encouraging them to support Dumanis leading up to and during the union’s days-long endorsement vote have generated complaints.

The emails, obtained by Voice of San Diego, were seen by some as intimidating the DA’s office rank-and-file into falling in line behind Dumanis.

Robert Hickey, president of the deputy DA union, said he received complaints over the correspondence and forwarded them to the human resources department for the DAs office.

“I’ve heard people complaining about getting political solicitation at their office, calling them and encouraging them how to vote or asking them to join a webpage that would demonstrate loyalty to the boss,” Hickey said.

Those concerned with the correspondence are upset about more than just the emails’ content. They’re also wary of the fact that all of the recipients were identified openly in the email, rather than having their names hidden in the BCC line.

Deputy District Attorney Patrick Espinoza, who sent one of the emails that generated complaints, said the backlash was isolated among supporters of Robert Brewer, Dumanis’ main opponent.

“The claim that a voter was ‘strong armed’ by the email is simply sour grapes from Brewer partisans because Brewer lost the vote,” Espinoza told Voice of San Diego in an email.

The pro-Dumanis email from Espinoza was sent to multiple groups of deputy district attorneys.

The subject line indicated the note was about encouraging deputies to take part in the endorsement vote. But the content of the email was a direct response to a separate email from retired attorney and Brewer supporter Bob Phillips, saying the office was in a downhill slide and that it no longer stands up to its ethical and professional responsibilities.

“His e-mail was a personal vituperative attack on our District Attorney,” Espinoza wrote. “If members do not vote, the voices of those who view the DA’s Office as an Office ‘in decline’ may prevail. … The overwhelming majority of us are proud to work as prosecutors in the San Diego District Attorney’s Office for District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.”

Espinoza signed the email with his official title and sent it to deputies’ work email addresses.

San Diego County Charter Section 914 says employees can’t engage in political activities during hours when they’ve been instructed to perform official duties. There’s no indication that Espinoza’s email, sent on a Sunday afternoon, violates that restriction.

“The best practice is for government employees to participate in political activities while not working and that government phones, emails and other resources never be used,” said Gil Cabrera, an attorney and former chair and commissioner of the San Diego Ethics Commission. (Cabrera has donated $250 to both Brewer and Dumanis.) “The law generally requires that approach.”

But Espinoza said the process for the endorsement vote, which ensures anonymity, means none of the email recipients had any reason to be concerned.

“I do not work in the same city as most of those who received my email. (I am in Vista),” Espinoza wrote to Voice of San Diego. “The use of my title served to let some of those recipients know that I am in fact a colleague.”

Another one of the emails that generated complaints was from Matthew Greco, a deputy DA from the office’s North County branch, sent from a Deputy District Attorneys for Dumanis account. Deputy District Attorneys for Dumanis is an independent group not associated with the deputy DA union.

Greco’s email said Dumanis had represented the deputy DAs well in contract negotiations and had steered the budget through two recessions without laying off any attorneys.

He encouraged the recipients to visit his group’s website to see a list of former and current attorneys who support Dumanis.

“Stand with us and show Bonnie that you have her back,” he wrote.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and vice president of the L.A. Ethics Commission, said the inclusion of the recipient names on the emails that spurred complaints “probably doesn’t rise to the level of being legally actionable, but it lives in the subtle gray area where we know what it’s about.”

“Does this rise to ‘you need to endorse or else you won’t get plum assignments or a promotion?’ No, but everyone knows how to use BCC, right? I think this can be seen as a subtle tactic to feel pressure to endorse in a re-election,” Levinson said.

Greco said he simply repurposed an email from two years ago asking deputy DAs to volunteer for Dumanis’ mayoral race, and hit reply-all.

“It just says join us in supporting her, and that’s within the context of the (anonymous) endorsement vote that was imminent,” he said. “It doesn’t ask anybody to join a website or put a name on it.”

If his email generated complaints, he said, then the one from two years ago asking deputy DAs to volunteer for Dumanis’ mayoral bid should have also.

Jennifer Tierney, who is running Dumanis’ re-election campaign, said she doesn’t know anything about emails encouraging deputy DAs to support their boss.

“That’s certainly not coming from Bonnie,” she said. “Bonnie keeps her campaign out of the office.”

Board members for a political action committee for deputy DAs, which is meant to remain neutral until the union’s vote is complete, also exchanged emails after the PAC’s Twitter feed sent pro-Dumanis messages while the endorsement vote was still taking place.

Sophia Roach, one of the board members, took that as an opportunity to express concern over Greco’s email, because she said it encouraged young deputies to sign up to endorse Dumanis and included division supervisors without hiding any of the recipients’ names.

“So now anyone invited to sign up for DDASfordumanis is essentially part of a public checklist that can be used to compare against who signed up,” she wrote to PAC board members, in an email string obtained by Voice of San Diego. “Sickening.”

Espinoza dismissed the Twitter incident, telling PAC board members to “take a deep breath. Relax. Mellow out. De-stress.”

Roach said the emails and tweets could allow Dumanis’ opponents to drum up questions about the legitimacy of the endorsement process.

“Sure, it’s easy to relax when you come with a predesigned agenda, change the rules without notice to favor your own position and when you lose (as you did on the decision for a membership vote), ‘someone’ hijacks the endorsement in your favor and tweets it for the world to see,” she wrote in the email to PAC board members. “For the rest of us — dedicated to a fair process — we have made repeated requests for a meeting so that we can lawfully resume our fiduciary duties to the members. Those requests have been ignored. We will not stand by silently while the rules are broken and our integrity as a board is actively being undermined.”

A bigger problem, Espinoza told Voice of San Diego, were three emails sent by former deputy DAs supporting Brewer, including the one that prompted his response email that generated a complaint.

Hickey, the deputy DA union head, should have acted on those emails, Espinoza said.

“It did not go unnoticed that the DA Association President never responded when three retired DDAs and Brewer partisans emailed DDAs in an attempt to influence the vote of the DDA Association membership,” Espinoza wrote. “Bob Hickey used to work in private practice with Bob Brewer. Bob Brewer is the former boss of (Hickey). That connection calls into question President Hickey’s failure to respond” to those emails.

Each of the emails he’s referring to, from former deputy DAs Marty Martins, KT Huang and Phillips, was sent to current deputy DAs’ personal email addresses, and hid the recipients’ names.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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