RIVERSIDE – Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach’s decision to spend part of a workday planting campaign signs and taking down his opponent’s was a breach of duty over which the law will have the final word, two members of the Board of Supervisors said today.
”It is never appropriate or legal to use public resources for personal or political purposes,” board Chairman Jeff Stone told City News Service. ”The district attorney in his comments mentioned his ‘lapse of judgment’ … I have not spoken with the D.A. yet about his version of events and will wait to learn what the Indio Police Department concludes in this matter.”
Both Stone and Supervisor Kevin Jeffries have endorsed Zellerbach in the June 3 primary election pitting the incumbent against veteran homicide prosecutor Mike Hestrin.
Jeffries split his endorsement between the two men, telling City News Service earlier this week that he felt both were qualified for the job.
”I’m re-evaluating my position as we speak,” Jeffries said today. ”I’m waiting for all the facts. Candidates have done stupid things and stupid acts with their opponent’s campaign signs going back forever. It’s frustrating when a candidate’s signs disappear. It’s even worse when it’s at the hands of your opponent, as in this case.”
Jeffries said he had ”concerns across the board” regarding Zellerbach’s behavior.
”I’m not going to push anybody over a cliff,” the supervisor said. ”But this is a problem. My top concern is the use of a county vehicle for campaign purposes.”
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Van Wagenen confirmed today that Zellerbach was driving a Ford Escape SUV that’s among 225 vehicles in the agency’s fleet.
”It’s one of our travel cars,” Van Wagenen said. ”We assign it to folks who need to travel for training, go to a trial; for meeting or picking up victims.”
Zellerbach today cut a personal check in the amount of $203.28 to reimburse the county for his use of the SUV on Wednesday, when he was allegedly witnessed knocking down a Hestrin sign and putting up one of his own at an Indio intersection.
He admitted removing three other Hestrin signs outside a convenience store not far away and placing his own at the same spot.
Van Wagenen said D.A.’s office accountants arrived at $203 by calculating the number of miles Zellerbach traveled that day — 363 — and multiplying that figure by the Internal Revenue Service mileage reimbursement rate for business, which is 56 cents per mile.
”The D.A. said he wanted to repay the office for use of the county car,” Van Wagenen said.
Zellerbach was in the Coachella Valley on Wednesday to attend several official functions.
Shortly before 10 a.m., a law enforcement officer — whom Zellerbach later identified as D.A.’s office Investigator Javier Garcia — claims he witnessed the county’s top prosecutor kick down a large Hestrin sign posted at Jefferson Street and Indio Boulevard, where the D.A. also planted one of his signs.
According to Riverside Sheriffs’ Association President Robert Masson, who spoke on behalf of Garcia, Zellerbach was accompanied by D.A.’s office tribal liaison Ricardo Rubio.
”The officer confronted Mr. Zellerbach and his companion, telling them that he saw what they had done,” Masson said.
According to the RSA president, Zellerbach immediately retreated to the county-owned Ford Escape, ”leaving Mr. Rubio to pick up the Hestrin sign and try to put it back.”
The tail-end of the encounter was captured on Garcia’s camera phone. Zellerbach has stated publicly that the affair was taken out of context and that the sign had fallen down in the wind.
Apparently only minutes before that incident, Zellerbach uprooted three Hestrin signs outside an am/pm convenience store on Jefferson, just off Interstate 10, and put up one of his own, all of which was caught on the store’s security camera.
According to the Zellerbach camp, the D.A. obtained permission from the store owner to place his signs — and remove Hestrin’s. Indio police are investigating both incidents to ascertain whether acts of misdemeanor vandalism or theft occurred, said police department spokesman Ben Guitron.
”More doors have opened,” he told City News Service. ”People are calling us, bringing up bits of information that we have to look into. Things keep popping up. We can’t dismiss anything.”
According to Guitron, if the police department decides to submit the case for criminal charges, the California Attorney General’s Office would more than likely be the go-to agency.
”That’s a strong point we’re heading towards,” he said.