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Contra Costa District Attorney's Race Is Ugly

The fight to become top prosecutor has featured a fistfight, questionable ethics, and accusations of illegal electioneering.

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Campaigns for county prosecutor aren't typically raucous affairs. But in the race to become district attorney of Contra Costa County, the prosecutor's office has at times seemed more like a biker bar than a temple of law and order. There's been a fistfight between two attorneys, revelations of a sex-obsessed office culture, and accusations of Machiavellian electioneering. And that's not counting the looming effect of a rape case involving a senior prosecutor and a junior DA.

The three-way race features two candidates who are taking on the power structure that has dominated the DA's office for 25 years. Challenging the traditionally orchestrated succession of district attorneys are Concord Councilman Mark Peterson, a 25-year veteran of the office, and outsider Elle B. Falahat, who worked as a prosecutor in Ventura County. The power structure's favored son is Dan O'Malley, a former deputy district attorney and ex-superior court judge who currently works as a criminal defense attorney.

O'Malley's connections run deep. His father is former District Attorney William O'Malley, his sister is Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, and his wife is Mary Ann O'Malley, Contra Costa County's presiding superior court judge. In addition, both current District Attorney Robert Kochly and his predecessor Gary Yancey have endorsed O'Malley.

Campaign lines were unofficially drawn in October, 2008 when 51-year-old prosecutor Michael Gressett was charged with raping a 29-year-old deputy DA (see "A Troubled Rape Case," 10/28/2009). Kochly handled the case in such a questionable way that some prosecutors suspected the rape charges were more about political maneuvering than seeking justice. The case has affected both DA frontrunners; Peterson was demoted after complaining about investigation irregularities and O'Malley is fighting a subpoena for his phone records that Gressett's attorneys say may show O'Malley was a liaison between the alleged victim and Kochly. The case has yet to go to trial.

Despite the drama, there have been several lively debates between O'Malley and Peterson. Falahat, who appears to have little chance of winning, has withdrawn from two debates. At a recent event at Walnut Creek's Sunshine Rotary Club, O'Malley and Peterson discussed budget problems and took polite pot shots at each other. O'Malley shifted some blame for office dysfunction onto Peterson who was a longtime manager and Peterson told the audience that O'Malley quit his judgeship before his term was up so he could defend drunk drivers.

Back at the office things have been even less civil. In March, two senior lawyers, lead homicide prosecutor Harold Jewett and Assistant Chief District Attorney Paul Sequeira, a friend of O'Malley's who is third in command in the office, got into an election-related fistfight.

According to attorneys who witnessed the incident, Sequeira, who has been accused of inappropriately influencing fellow prosecutors to support his chosen candidate, was talking loudly in the homicide unit. Jewett, who heads up the division, went to see what the noise was about and Sequeira ordered Jewett back to his desk. Jewett refused and Sequeira began yelling about a letter Jewett wrote to the Contra Costa Times. In the letter, Jewett decried an unproductive political office environment and supported Peterson's accusations of illegal fund-raising by O'Malley's campaign. Sequeira, who was still yelling, closed the distance to Jewett and put his nose on Jewett's face. That's when Jewett punched Sequeira in the eye.

Sequeira received two stitches and Jewett was reassigned to Richmond. Sequeira did not return calls to discuss the fight and Jewett refused to comment on the incident, but Peterson was blunt. "If you're a supporter of mine, you find out pretty quickly that you can be transferred, you can be not hired if you're a contract attorney, and you could be physically intimidated," he said.

Meanwhile, the prosecutors' union, under the leadership of Barry Grove, an avowed O'Malley supporter, has endorsed his favored candidate, which was awkward by traditional union standards. Both O'Malley and Peterson are tough-on-crime prosecutors but they disagree on how younger attorneys should be treated. Peterson, a devoutly religious man, has in the past supported pay raises for junior DAs. O'Malley, by contrast, has said he will cut the annual salaries of new contract attorneys by $10,000 and redistribute the savings, which he estimates to be $250,000, among senior trial attorneys, including Sequeira, who is management. Typically, unions want the money to flow downhill.

By appearances, O'Malley, with his endorsements and war chest, is the better-prepared candidate. But, in truth, he has had trouble running a disciplined campaign. He was chastised for a video in which he used his wife's position as a judge to advance his campaign, in apparent violation of legal ethical standards. Then in January, Peterson accused O'Malley of illegally soliciting campaign contributions from district attorneys at an invitation fund-raiser. O'Malley said he was not involved in organizing the event and the state Attorney General Jerry Brown refused Peterson's investigation request.

O'Malley did not return requests for an interview for this story, but he is known as a charming guy and resourceful campaigner. One thing is for sure — if O'Malley fails to garner a majority of votes in June, the November runoff will be rife with political intrigue and ringside spectacle.

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