◼ The McKinleyville Press ◼ The Arcata Eye - Gallegos: ‘Vast Change’ is a work in progress – February 17, 2010 ◼ The Independent
HUMBOLDT – District Attorney Paul Gallegos has caused an historic but controversial transformation of his office and he says a third term will give him a chance to see it through.
Gallegos is at once the county’s most championed and disparaged political figure. From what’s said of him, he’s either courageously aligned the DA’s Office with community values or turned it into a smoking crater.
Both attitudes will be on full show in the upcoming DA primary election.
The political split is reflective of a larger, cultural one and DA elections of the recent past have inflamed it. But Gallegos said it’s ultimately been constructive and re-election will allow him to “finish work that I started years ago.” He described what he views as the fundamental improvements that have happened since he was elected in 2003.
They include modernizing the office’s filing and information systems; new DUI, drug enforcement and cultural awareness training programs for police and investigators; improvements in the quality of investigations and initiating multiple fronts of community outreach, including tribal outreach.
Gallegos said a “vast change” has taken place and is ongoing. It’s been a famously turbulent process and Gallegos believes the office is better for it – and so is he. “It’s always wrong to say there’s nothing more to learn,” he said.
He’ll be facing at least two and probably three of his former prosecutors in the election and they’re already saying that the first thing Gallegos needs to learn is how to run the office. His critics say he’s caused an exodus of respected prosecutors, personally taken on high-profile felony cases at the expense of office management, and his relationships with police agencies are strained.
Gallegos has fired three attorneys and others chose to leave the office after he was elected. He isn’t apologetic. “Yes, we do have standards here and we have responsibilities to this community and to the office,” he said. “I was voted in to do a job and to turn this office around.”
It’s been said that the office is now staffed with young, inexperienced attorneys who aren’t well-managed or trained. Gallegos named eight prosecutors in the office who are “far from young and inexperienced,” and added, “We have a base level of young attorneys doing misdemeanor work that we’re training and will be replaced – that’s the way it’s always been and it’s the way it’s always going to be.”
Gallegos also named himself an experienced prosecutor but some say that’s part of the problem — that he doesn’t have time to be what a DA should be: a department head.
But Gallegos believes that “first and foremost,” a DA’s job is to be a trial attorney. “You have to lead by example and be willing to try those tough cases, those big cases for the community,” he said. “The people of this community deserve to see me in court – I’m not an administrator, they didn’t elect me to be an administrator, they elected me to make sure this office runs and it runs well.”
Gallegos added that the office has “working, functional relationships” with all agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office and police departments. “There are times when individual chiefs and agencies are unhappy with me and sometimes that is mutual,” he said. “But by and large we know what our responsibility to this community is and we fulfill it.”
He added, “At the same time, the tail cannot wag the dog and I would say there was a perception of the tail wagging the dog.”
One of Gallegos’ signature messages is that application of law has to be based on it content, not biases. “One of the fundamental things I believe is that it has to rain on the rich and poor alike,” he said. “The DA’s office shouldn’t just pick on poor people – you know, we never get criticism when we pick on poor people, the mentally ill and homeless people.”
Marijuana growers were seen by some as being picked on before Gallegos was elected. His medical cultivation guidelines were eventually adopted by the Board of Supervisors but as the DA’s Office has changed, so have the times. Now there are complaints about the impacts of marijuana growing and a demand for doing something about them, especially in Arcata.
Has Gallegos’ marijuana prosecution approach changed? He says it’s “absolutely the same” and that he supports prosecuting marijuana cases when appropriate. But he added, “The first key is to remove the hyperbole – we will sit down with Arcata any day to address the issues but they have to be real issues. We cannot break the law, I’m not going to violate people’s civil liberties.”
Nor will he be pressured into seeking recourses that aren’t pragmatic, he said. His use of plea bargains, especially in some of the cases he’s personally prosecuted, is another target of criticism. One of the more controversial plea deals is the one accepted by Jason Whitmill, one of two men who caused the death of nine-year-old Nicole Quigley while drag racing on Route 299.
Whitmill was sentenced to 14 years, eight months in prison on a manslaughter charge, a punishment that members of Quigley’s family and others think is light. Gallegos had originally filed a second degree murder charge, which set a hard-nosed tone for the case and probably raised people’s expectations.
“It also raised Mr. Whitmill’s expectations,” said Gallegos. “And I didn’t charge it to get him to plead but it also let everyone know – ‘You do this and you may find yourself accused of murder.’ We put the community on notice.”
The downgrading of a vehicular manslaughter charge against Alan Bear, the man who drifted out of a State Route 299 travel lane and struck and killed bicyclist Gregory Jennings severely disappointed the bicyclists and trail advocates who are – or were – part of Gallegos’ support base. Asked about it, he said he made the right decision.
“I reduced it because the evidence changed,” Gallegos continued. “That guy got a year in jail – that was a big case for Humboldt County. When I got here, they said, ‘Paul , they never prosecute people who run over bicyclists.’ Guess what, no one will ever say that again – we sent someone to jail for a year for accidentally running over a bicyclist. That is a great thing, that is a big change for Humboldt County.”
Gallegos has had less time than it seems to establish his leadership. He’s been in office for seven years but the first four were steeped in turmoil and sidetracked by a recall election. He won a second term with a 53 percent majority and the division of opinion on him still runs strong and is probably as bitter as ever.
“I have shouldered the burden of change not only in this office but in this community,” Gallegos said. “I’ve been the meat in the grinder, so to speak … from the recall to the next election, which was a revisit of that whole past battle — and we’re seeing it again.”
I am at a loss. The quotes here are astounding. There's too much to address.
Gallegos has had less time than it seems to establish his leadership. He’s been in office for seven years but...
BUT. But what?
BUT he has failed to do so. Consistently. Over and over and over again. No more excuses.
The Humboldt County Grand Jury found that "Weak leadership and poor managerial practices" have undermined the office... Implicit in all evidence gathered by the Grand Jury - including interviews with the D.A. - is the unfortunate truth that the D.A. exhibits a limited understanding of how things are done in the department" Gallegos "lacks the global perspective needed to keep the department operating efficiently," and quotes an unnamed staff member as saying, "The D.A. does not fully understand the functionality of many of the things we do here"
Those are Daniel Mintz's words, writing about, and quoting, the Grand Jury findings in 2005.
◼ TS - Grand Jury Findings and Recommendations
◼ ER - 2004-05 Humboldt County Grand Jury Report 6/29/2005
◼ TS - Grand jury issues scathing DA critique June 29, 2005
"However, the informed, well-organized, diligent leadership essential during difficult times is missing," the grand jury report said. "Operations are neither as efficient nor as effective as they must be."
◼ McK Press - Grand Jury Report: D.A. guilty of 'weak leadership'
◼ ER - 2004-05 Humboldt County grand jury releases its final report
◼ NCJ - GRAND JURY REPORT IN
◼ The Grand Jury Report on the DA's office
◼ The Grand Jury Report on CAST
◼ TS - Gallegos responds to grand jury findings
◼ CAST Response/Grand Jury Report
Weak leadership and poor managerial practices - what has changed? This has been the case from day one.
The last election, the Times Standard opined that he should have yet another chance. Again we find that "a third term will give him a chance to see it through."
See what through? Further degradation of the office? Lose more prosecutors? Pile more work on already overworked inexperienced hires?
Seven YEARS. And he says "I’m not an administrator, they didn’t elect me to be an administrator,"
UPDATE, Response to this article"
Letter to the Editor
I don't know what does:
I read Mr. Gallegos recent article in the Arcata Eye. Here is a man that says he needs a third term as Humboldt County District Attorney to finish what he started. That is a scary statement, especially if you are one of the victims of his incompetence.
I had the unfortunate opportunity of watching Mr. Gallegos try to prosecute what was suppose to be a murder case in Humboldt County Court. This man is no more a prosecutor than I am a brain surgeon. Mr. Gallegos was always late to court, could not answer any of the judge’s questions and always had the excuse that he did not have the case file with him.
The court-appointed, taxpayer-provided attorney for the defense made Mr. Gallegos look like a deer caught in the headlights and virtually kicked Mr. Gallegos’ butt all over the courtroom.
Some say that Mr. Gallegos needs to leave the courtroom to his deputies and administrate but he has proven that he cannot do this either. The morning that the preliminary hearing was to begin, Mr. Gallegos dropped the case into one of his deputy’s lap, and sent her into the courtroom late and totally unprepared.
After the preliminary hearing, Mr. Gallegos felt that with all of the publicity that this case was getting he could get some personal mileage out of handling the case himself, so he takes it away from the deputy after she spends day and night for a week getting up to speed.
After months of delays from the defense, numerous blunders from the prosecution and thousands of Humboldt County taxpayer dollars Mr. Gallegos decides he cannot prevail in the courtroom in front of a jury, so he plea bargains with the two who took my little girl’s life.
Mr. Gallegos then gives the file to one of his most talented prosecutors so she can go to the victim’s family and try to clean up the mess he made.
Mr. Gallegos did not show up for the sentencing hearing for Jason Whitmill or Anthony Flores which is a good thing because when Mr. Gallegos prosecuted Jason Whitmill back in 2007, he forgot to add his prior felonies which in turn allowed Whitmill out of prison a year early and 12 days before he killed Nicole Quigley.
I will remember this come June’s election and I hope and pray that everyone else in Humboldt County does, too.
◼ Letters to the Editor – March 3, 2010 (Updated to include Feb. 24 letters) - Arcata Eye