RIVERSIDE – Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach is fighting in today’s election to retain his seat in the face of a formidable challenge from veteran homicide prosecutor Mike Hestrin, as suspicions of criminal wrongdoing swirl around the incumbent.
In June 2010, Zellerbach, then a Superior Court judge, unseated one-term D.A. Rod Pacheco in a grueling campaign during which Zellerbach blamed his former friend for clogging the court system due to a no-plea-bargains policy, as well as creating a climate of ”intimidation and fear” in the D.A.’s office and blowing a hole in the agency’s budget by mismanaging resources.
Zellerbach further alleged that Pacheco was misstating conviction rates to burnish his image, arguing that the 90 percent rate that the then-D.A. boasted was actually closer to half that.
In March 2013, Hestrin, a 15-year deputy district attorney, announced he would challenge Zellerbach, citing plummeting morale at the agency, a lack of leadership and concerns over a seeming apathetic response to the fallout from state public safety realignment legislation that critics argue has contributed to a surge in area crime.
Zellerbach, 60, has stood by his record of the last four years, using the slogan ”Promises Made; Promises Kept” in campaign literature. The D.A. insists that conviction rates have increased ”37 percent” since he took office in January 2011.
However, figures supplied by the Judicial Council of California suggest otherwise. According to the state agency, in the last fiscal year of Pacheco’s term, 2009-10, the overall conviction rate was 86.4 percent, while during the first full fiscal year of Zellerbach’s term, 2011-12, the overall rate came to about 84 percent.
Zellerbach has successfully kept a lid on spending at the D.A.’s office, with the budget in the black every year except the first six months of his term, when he assumed control from Pacheco and needed nearly $6 million in general fund assistance to cover year-end expenses.
The incumbent eliminated 16 executive-level positions almost immediately after taking office as part of a new budget discipline he vowed to enforce. However, he eventually hired almost an equal number of people to fill the same top slots.
The legitimacy of some hires has been questioned, including the rationale for having a ”tribal liaison” among the executive staff.
The employee, Ricardo Rubio, was later witnessed allegedly helping Zellerbach conduct campaign activity on county time.
Zellerbach lambasted Pacheco in 2010 for lowering morale at the agency, citing a grand jury report that suggested some employees feared being demoted or transferred into static positions if they said anything remotely critical about how the office was being run.
Zellerbach promised an ”open door” policy in which opinions could be shared without fear of retribution. However, line prosecutors have told City News Service that criticism of Zellerbach is met with hostility and can have career-killing repercussions.
Shortly after veteran prosecutor John Aki openly criticized personnel changes within the office last year, he was stripped of his seniority in the Riverside homicide prosecution unit and transferred to a gang prosecution unit in Indio.
Hestrin has described morale at the D.A.’s office as being ”in the tank,” pointing to his virtually unanimous vote of support from fellow deputy district attorneys last May as one example.
The challenger has taken the incumbent to task on his claims of being a crime fighter, blasting Zellerbach for supporting mechanisms such as split sentencing, under which a convict can do part of his time behind bars and the rest out of custody, basically on probation.
Zellerbach has characterized split sentencing as a ”useful tool” that provides alternatives to overloading already maxed-out local jails with more convicts.
Hestrin has turned some statistics against the county’s top prosecutor, who boasts of contributing to a ”16 percent” reduction in violent crime countywide last year. Zellerbach’s reference conveniently ignores some categories of crime, according to Hestrin, who has emphasized the countywide murder rate in 2013 was up nearly 50 percent.
The 43-year-old prosecutor’s campaign has consistently highlighted the apparent correlation between upward crime spikes and inmate early releases.
According to the sheriff’s department, more than 16,200 detainees in the county’s five jails were put back on the street in 2012 and 2013 before their sentences were served or their cases adjudicated because there wasn’t enough space to hold them and at the same time remain in compliance with a federal court decree that each inmate have a bed.
Zellerbach contends that the early releases cannot be attributed to his policies. But Hestrin argues the incumbent’s preference for expediting cases through the system via plea deals and other easy compromises has had an adverse impact on public safety in general.
Zellerbach has characterized Hestrin as a union appeaser, suggesting that if the Coachella Valley native takes the helm, the Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys’ Association will get whatever it wants — regardless of what’s in the best interest of taxpayers — as will other bargaining units.
Zellerbach sought the RCDDAA’s endorsement — and the backing of all of the other law enforcement associations supporting Hestrin.
The D.A. has alluded to appearances of a conspiracy in the Indio Police Department investigation that culminated in detectives asking the California Attorney General’s Office to charge him with felony misappropriation of funds and embezzlement by a public official, along with misdemeanor vandalism and theft.
Zellerbach came under scrutiny following two April 23 incidents involving Hestrin campaign signs. In one instance, a law enforcement officer said he saw Zellerbach tear down a large Hestrin sign, and in the second instance, surveillance cameras outside a convenience store caught the D.A. doing the same thing with three smaller signs. He was on official business, using a county vehicle at the time, traveling with his tribal liaison.
Zellerbach has dismissed the activity as ”much ado about nothing.”
A spokesman for the AG’s office told CNS that the case is still under review.