They maintained a civil distance, but the three candidates for Mendocino County District Attorney made it clear they have serious differences about how the job should be done as they went at it in Fort Bragg late last month.
Candidate Matt Finnegan cited the case of Clinton Smith, the Willits Charter School teacher who enjoyed a prolonged sexual relationship with a 15-year old female student, a crime that gets the typical Mendo lust bucket a long stretch in the state pen. Smith was originally charged with five felonies but got off light by pleading to only one lesser charge; he did a few months in the County Jail and was not required to register as a sex offender.
“The right thing is not happening in the DA’s office now,” Finnegan began. “A teacher who molested a student does not have to register and will not go to prison. That decision was made by the current DA's office which let him plead to one count.”
DA Lintott replied, “The District Attorney recommended state prison and registration. The sentence was the judge’s decision. We were not behind that sentence. My opponent was not involved in any discussion or investigation of that case and is not in a position to criticize when he doesn't know the evidence we had.”
Lintott did not explain why her office reduced the charges from five counts to one.
Candidates David Eyster and Matt Finnegan charged that Ms. Lintott’s charging was inconsistent, that office morale was poor and that she had a poor relationship with law enforcement. “Too many cases are put into system,” added Eyster, “particularly marijuana cases. There’s no system to differentiate which ones get charged and which ones go away – even in a murder case. I'll fix that.”
Finnegan and Eyster both said they’d do their own charging to bring consistency to the charging process.
After complaining that “I should get extra time because two people are saying negative things about me,” Lintott replied that she “walked into an office that was in disarray,” suggesting that she'd inherited disarray, the result of her two previous interim DAs (one of whom, Keith Faulder, she fired for running against her; the other, Elizabeth Norman, she kept on as Assistant DA). There were four vacant attorney positions which she had to fill, she said, and she'd had to set up reporting requirements for DAs who had been unionized with Finnegan leading the union-organizing charge. “And they even fought that they had to come to work during the daytime hours when police and victims are available!” Lintott complained. “I was very upset and very disappointed! I instituted changes and brought in Jill Ravitch.” Ravitch is a formidable senior prosecutor from Sonoma County who’s now running for DA in Sonoma County for the second time.
“Morale was in the dumpster when I was elected,” said Lintott. “Now it's better. People are laughing in the halls from time to time. We have a long way to go. There’s room for improvement. Go ahead and talk to Law Enforcement. Mr. Finnegan was out there bad-mouthing me for three years. But look at that opinion [from the labor arbitrator who denied Finnegan’s claim of unjustified firing and who criticized Finnegan for saying mean things about some of his female coworkers]. He's a good storyteller. Police may have believed his stories.”
Lintott disputed Eyster’s charge of “inconsistency” by saying that it was a “vague concept they can throw at me without understanding particular cases or circumstances. Our most experienced attorneys charge out the most serious cases. Newer attorneys handle misdemeanors. We round-table cases, and discuss them before filing.”
Lintott also said that if there is inconsistency in marijuana charging the problem is that the law is inconsistent and ever-changing, not her office.
Lintott re-emphasized her campaign slogan, “Promises kept,” although they are generic DA promises vowing to fight violent crime, domestic violence, elder abuse and so on.
Eyster replied, “We're all against violent crime. Unfortunately, I'm the only one who's taken violent crime cases to jury trial.”
Lintott responded, “I’ve prosecuted rape cases, child molest cases… I was a defense attorney for a three strikes case and had a strike stricken, which is very unusual. I’ve prosecuted domestic violence, DUIs and manslaughter cases. To say I have no trial record is patently false. Mr. Eyster has not been a prosecutor for 14 years. He’s a defense lawyer.”
Finnegan insisted that as DA he would set a marijuana cultivation prosecution guideline limit of six plants. But he added that he never said that he was inflexibly stuck on half a dozen. “The six plant guideline is a policy limit,” said Finnegan, “and that’s very different than Meredith's 200 plant limit,” which Finnegan also charged was made in secret due to budget limitations.
Eyster said that Finnegan’s trial record was lackluster because he didn’t get convictions on what was charged on a number of occasions.
Finnegan replied that he stood by his jury trial record and that he estimated he had a 75-80% conviction rate at trial. “Sometimes you have to try the tough cases,” said Finnegan, citing a case where a man named Hoaglin was attacked. “The jury said they didn't believe his victim ID,” which lead them to find him not guilty. “I will continue to do that” (try the tough cases), said Finnegan.
When Lintott said one of her priorities was to have “ethical attorneys,” Eyster replied, “How can her next priority be having ethical attorneys? That should be a priority from Day One. There’s no place in a DA's office for unethical attorneys. The DA’s job is do justice, not just get convictions.”
When Finnegan said he had a passion for being a prosecutor, Eyster replied that “Mr. Finnegan has passion for being a police officer, not a DA. Prosecutors who want to be cops mean you lose your focus. You must review the work of the cops. And you need credibility to reject cases or send them back for more investigation to make them better. Mr. Finnegan just wants to be a different form of a policeman.”
Finnegan responded, “I’m not a wannabe police officer, I’m a wannabe DA.”
Both Finnegan and Eyster said that Ms. Lintott wasn’t doing enough to train law enforcement on how to prepare and submit cases. Eyster even claimed that it hasn’t happened “since I did it as DA. I don't know why it’s not happening now.” Eyster cited his role as “legal advisor to the Sheriff’s Office during Redwood Summer” – a dubious claim to fame that most of the voting public would not understand, much less appreciate.
Lintott said she had “attended sessions with the major crimes task force,” and that “training has been provided in the area of gangs and DUIs. It’s a misnomer [sic] to say training is not happening.” Lintott said that she has “investigation teams on call. I'm on call. I go out. Don't let this banter change what the reality is. Could there be more communication? Absolutely. But on major cases, detectives come to our office and discuss cases with attorneys and the Assistant DA. The more we can do that the better.”
Lintott also disputed Finnegan’s claim that the DA’s office was top-heavy with managers. “I do not have too many managers,” insisted Lintott. “Our liability is huge, especially if attorneys are not doing their job. Mr. Finnegan and a co-worker [former Deputy DA Lee Nerli] headed out [to the Laura Hamburg bust a few years ago which was later tossed for the cops’ failure to include Hamburg’s medical/caregiver claims in the search warrant request] without my permission and without being asked by Sheriff Allman. They wound up giving bad legal advice and the case was dismissed and I didn't refile. These are the things I've had to do. You don't want a judgment against you. Hamburg filed a claim against the County. They didn't file a lawsuit, but they could have. We want to avoid that.”
Lintott said that managing the office in these tight budget times, when her attorney-employees are unionized and can’t be dismissed easily, requires her full management attention and that her opponents don’t have the budget and management experience she now has.
Eyster said he managed the DA’s office and handled the budget when his boss, former DA Susan Massini, was out of town and that he was prepared to put in the extra time necessary to both do major trials and manage the office, thus providing leadership and cost-savings.
Finnegan concluded by saying, “I'm a leader. The others here can't say they've been a leader of anything.”