A secret report detailing deep divisions within the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office tells how DA candidate Matt Finnegan was fired a year ago after “mounting a campaign of character assassination” against a supervising attorney he called the “rat bitch.”
Finnegan’s ouster capped a bitter struggle between he, chief deputy prosecutor Jill Ravitch and DA Meredith Lintott over the prosecutor’s role in a changing office, and his sometimes stormy relations with some co-workers. He had wanted the job Ravitch was given by Lintott. Ravitch, a veteran prosecutor, in 2008 landed the Mendocino job in between her on-going political campaign to become DA in Sonoma County.
The 36-page confidential report, a detailed review of Finnegan’s unsuccessful bid to appeal his firing, makes clear he proved no match for Ravitch.
Especially after Finnegan was accused by fellow prosecutor Heidi Larson of calling her a “motherfucker” because he suspected her of “ratting” on him to Ravitch. Finnegan told an outraged Ravitch that he believed he had called Larson a “buddyfucker” instead.
The candid document was prepared by a veteran East Bay hearing officer with experience in reviewing dozens of sensitive personnel cases for public civil service commissions statewide.
Hearing Officer Barry Winograd of Oakland not only concluded Finnegan’s firing was justified, he questioned Finnegan’s “fitness to serve as a prosecutor.”
The report is dated March 9 but its findings have been kept under wraps by the county Civil Service Commission because Finnegan at the last minute dropped his appeal, choosing instead to focus on his campaign to oust Lintott in the upcoming June election. Former prosecutor David Eyster is the third candidate in the race.
Finnegan in his appeal contended that the professional lapses cited by Lintott and Ravitch were manufactured in some instances, and overstated in others. He also contended that his on-the-job abilities were burdened by a too heavy case load.
Winograd rejected all of Finnegan’s contentions following three days of testimony from a dozen different witnesses. Costs to the county are estimated to be in excess of $20,000.
Wineograd said he believed there was a bigger issue at stake besides professional performance and office politics.
“Ultimately the perspective exhibited by Mr. Finnegan about his prosecutorial errors, and his relations with others in the office whom he disliked, notably females, calls into question not only his testimony but, most important, his fitness to serve as a prosecutor.”
According to testimony, Ravitch didn’t respond openly to Finnegan’s name calling but she began to closely scrutinize his work habits. Finnegan, concluded Ravitch, was a “shoot-from-the-hip attorney.” Ravitch said Finnegan failed to adequately prepare for trials, and to follow office policies to involve victims as much as possible in the prosecution process.
Ravitch’s findings ultimately were incorporated into Lintott’s formal firing notice to Finnegan in March, 2009.
While the critical report focuses on Finnegan’s professionalism, it also offers a glimpse inside a troubled office led by an incumbent who was once reduced to tears by staff criticism of a failed office bake sale that she thought would improve morale.
According to the report, Finnegan and his supporters derided the Lintott bake sale proposal as “frivolous,” and he jokingly told some co-workers that he would “break fingers” if they took part.
Lintott was described as being “emotional” and “tearful” during a follow-up staff meeting, and she lashed out at deputies who opposed her new management policies. Lintott specifically singled out Finnegan “as someone who was acting in an inappropriate manner.”
But the report makes clear the final straw for Lintott and Ravitch came in February, 2009 with the name calling Larson reported to her bosses.
Finnegan attempted during the hearing to justify his remarks by contending that use of foul language inside the DA’s office is not uncommon.
“Mr. Finnegan and other deputies testified that Ms. Larson frequently used foul language or sexual references herself. Ms. Lintott also was described as having engaged in passing in inappropriate banter or sexual allusions,” the report stated.
Still, the report found that Finnegan was way out of bounds.
And while Winograd found that Lintott and Ravitch in some instances had “overstated” their allegations of poor performance against Finnegan, “These problems … pale in comparison to the larger picture that was presented.”
Finnegan’s explanations were subject to “significant doubt because his testimony at the hearing showed he uniformly blamed others for his shortcomings.”
Finnegan also failed to “acknowledge errors or mistakes in judgment despite telling evidence of repeated deficiencies in his handling and preparation of cases, and in his treatment of others,” said Winograd.
Winograd said Finnegan, for example, not only showed a disregard for office policies regarding victims’ involvement in prosecution efforts, he displayed a “cavalier attitude toward teenage victims of sexual wrongdoing.”
Citing a specific case – one of a dozen or more detailed by Ravitch – Winograd found that “In Mr. Finnegan’s mind, occasional attempts to arrange a meeting by relying on a victim advocate were sufficient to meet his obligations. Yet, for a professional prosecutor, his recalcitrant approach, standing alone, would be sufficient basis for major discipline if not summary discharge.”
Finally, Winograd noted that Finnegan’s explanations at the hearing “were marked by antagonistic and truculent attitude that was plainly influenced by his dislike of Ms. Lintott and other high level managers.”
Finnegan conceded under cross examination that in conversation with other prosecutors he once declared Lintott “doesn’t know what the fuck she is doing.”
The judge said he chose not to dismiss Finnegan’s remark as a one-time incident because evidence showed “Mr. Finnegan’s disparagement of Ms. Lintott was not unique.”
In particular, Winograd found Finnegan’s hostility escalated after Ravitch was selected as chief deputy over him.
“Instead of striving to learn from a more experienced attorney admired as a fine prosecutor and trial lawyer by even Mr. Finnegan’s friends and co-workers, Mr. Finnegan mounted what can fairly be described as a campaign of character assassination against Ms. Ravitch.”
The judge scoffed at Finnegan’s contentions that his role as a union leader made him a target of Lintott and Ravitch.
“There was no showing on Mr. Finnegan’s behalf that his comments were made in the context of labor relations discussions, rather than simply as personal and mean-spirited sniping.”
Winograd expressed amazement that Finnegan, when given an opportunity on cross-examination to express whether he believed his depiction of Ravitch as “rat bitch” was disrespectful, replied, “I don’t know.”
“Beyond this showing of remarkable insensitivity, Mr. Finnegan expressed no regret for having used this gross, disparaging characterization, which he continues to profess to the present.”