Contra Costa District Attorney, others want to prevent police unions from contributing to DA candidates during elections

Call on state bar to create a new ethics rule claiming it “would help restore the independence, integrity, and trust of elected prosecutors by preventing them from taking donations from police unions.”

“They’re trying to hamper pro-law enforcement candidates who will run against them” – law enforcement official (who chose to remain anonymous)

Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton. From CCC website.

SAN FRANCISCO – Today, Monday, June 1, 2020, in the wake of mass protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a coalition of current and former elected prosecutors representing millions of Californians in diverse counties banded together to call on the California State Bar to cure the conflict of interest created by police unions’ outsized influence in local elections.  The new rule would explicitly preclude elected prosecutors – or prosecutors seeking election – from seeking or accepting political or financial support from law enforcement unions. (Read letter, here).

“The legal representation of an accused officer is generally financed by their law enforcement union,” said Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton.  “It is illogical that the rules prohibit prosecutors from soliciting and benefiting from financial and political support from an accused officer’s advocate in court, while enabling the prosecutor to benefit financially and politically from the accused’s advocate in public.”

“District Attorneys will undoubtedly review use of force incidents involving police officers,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “When they do, the financial and political support of these unions should not be allowed to influence that decision making.”

“When videos emerge like the one depicting the killing of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery, the damage it does to the entire criminal justice system cannot be overstated,” said former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “That damage, however, is further compounded by delays in the condemnation, arrest, and charging of the involved law enforcement officers. These feelings, these protests, and the pain we’re seeing, would not be as raw and widespread if we had seen police held accountable by local prosecutors quickly and with regularity.  An important step in curing this pain is curing the conflict of interest that gives, at minimum, the appearance that police do not face consequences swiftly – or at all – due to the proximity and political influence of their union.”

“We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us to restore trust in our profession, but trust must be earned, it cannot be demanded,” said San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar.  “The first step to earning that trust back is ensuring the independence of county prosecutors is beyond reproach.”

Prosecutors are in a unique position of having to work closely with law enforcement and simultaneously evaluate whether crimes have been committed by these same officers.  Recent events involving police misconduct in which prosecutors either delayed or failed to file charges have shined a light on the importance of prosecutors making decisions regarding law enforcement officers’ conduct without any undue influence or bias.  Yet when prosecutors initiate an investigation or prosecution of an officer, the law enforcement unions often finance the legal representation of the accused officer. Prosecutors who have received an endorsement from the entity that is funding the defense of the officers being investigated or prosecuted creates, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest for elected prosecutors.

By precluding elected prosecutors—or prosecutors seeking election—from seeking or accepting political or financial support from law enforcement unions, the State Bar will reduce the presence of conflicts of interest and ensure independence on the part of elected prosecutors.  This proposal also aspires to help reestablish community trust in the integrity of prosecutors at a time when national events have damaged that trust.

For more information, follow #CureTheConflict.

In response, the following questions were sent to Becton’s public information officer, Scott Alonso:

“Is she saying that currently a prosecutor cannot solicit and benefit from financial and political support from an attorney representing a police officer accused of a crime while in court or during the court case? But the police officer’s attorney can support the prosecutor financially and politically when not in court or during the court case?

Please clarify who the accused is in her comment about the ‘accused’s advocate’. I assume it’s the same accused officer she refers to twice before in her comment. But, not sure.

Also, are she and the rest of the DA’s willing to forgo any financial contributions from criminal defense attorneys and public defenders? How about no financial support from any organization and only from individuals who live within their counties? How far should this go to ensure fairness in prosecutions? Isn’t this really one-sided? Also, if the police unions have so much influence in our county and they all backed Becton’s opponent in the last election how did she still win? Isn’t she in effect attempting to violate the free speech rights – which political campaign contributions have been defined as by the courts – of the police unions?

June 2 UPDATE: Alonso responded with, “Any questions about political contributions I cannot answer as a public employee. You would need to direct those to DA Becton’s campaign.”

This reporter then emailed him, “Please pass on my questions to DA Becton. I’m not asking you to answer them. I’m asking for her to.”

Alonso responded, “Her statement speaks for itself. Not sure what else to provide. Her reference to the advocate is the law enforcement union.”

A further email was sent to him with, “Her statement and the effort is clearly one sided and doesn’t answer my questions that I emailed you. Did you pass on my questions to her?  If not can you, please? I really don’t want to have to write that she’s refusing to answer them. Surely neither you nor she expects the media to just run press releases on controversial matters unchallenged and without question.

Thanks for the partial answer to my one question. But it still doesn’t clarify what she’s saying in that quote. How would a prosecutor solicit and benefit from financial and political support of a law enforcement union in court? I seriously don’t understand that.

I really need to hear back from her on the questions I sent. I don’t want to just write she refused to respond.”

Alonso responded with, “With all respect we do answer your questions. Your comment that this ‘effort is one side’ is odd. Not sure what you mean by that. There are standards in place for prosecutors in terms of receiving or benefitting from opposing defense counsel. This is outlined in the letter that you were provided. In terms of any questions on donations I cannot answer that as I have said.”

This reporter further responded by email with, “Yes, in the past you’ve answered my questions and I appreciate that. But I’m talking about this press release on a very controversial, political issue, which is rare if not the only one I recall ever receiving from you.

About the effort being one sided, that’s because all the DA’s and former DA quoted in the press release are attempting to silence one side in the political battle for who should be elected DA. Diana wasn’t backed by any of the police unions in the county, if I recall. They backed her opponent, DDA Paul Graves. Now she’s trying to prevent police unions from contributing to her potential opponents in future elections in effectively silencing their voice during a political campaign. Yet, I don’t see anything in the press release in which she or the other DA’s call for limiting the contributions to candidates from those on the criminal defense side.

Again, I’m not asking you to answer my questions. I’m asking you to pass along my questions to DA Becton, who as an elected official can answer them and should. You sent out on official CCDA letterhead a press release about a political matter. Frankly, that should have gone out on her campaign letterhead if you or she aren’t going to answer questions about it.

Now, please quit being a gatekeeper for her and pass on my questions to her. Another day has passed since you sent me the press release and I still don’t have but one question answered.

I’m trying not to go around you. I do have her cell phone number and have called her before when it was after hours. But I am avoiding calling her. I guess I’ll have to if I can’t get you to simply forward my questions to her.

So, let’s please stop the back and forth. I’m not asking you any questions about a political matter. I’m asking her.”

No response to that email was received.

When reached for comment, Becton said she was in a meeting and to “send questions to Scott.”

Please check back later for any updates to this report and responses from the DA.

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