By Doug Porter / San Diego Free Press
The race for District Attorney in San Diego has heated up in recent days, with incumbent Bonnie Dumanis actually showing up for a debate in Del Cerro after skipping events in Oceanside and La Jolla earlier this month. She also appeared at a Ramona Tea Party multi-candidate forum on Saturday, reportedly wearing a straw cowboy hat.
UT-San Diego gave Dumanis their editorial blessing this weekend, saying “She deserves re-election to a fourth term,” before acknowledging that she might have picked up some “baggage” over her 12 years in office. While that “baggage,” which includes a campaign finance scandal and an over-zealous (and failing) campaign against medical marijuana is of interest, it’s the broader accusations that Dumanis has politicized the District Attorney’s office that merit your attention.
While politicization in elective DA races usually connotes a process through which incumbents use crime as a political issue to increase their “electability and popularity,” in this contest the term is referencing Dumanis’ role as protector for the established interests that have long dominated San Diego politics.
Most of this kind of ‘protection’ is backroom stuff, and hard to prove. With Dumanis’ BFF Laura Duffy firmly ensconced in the US Attorney’s office and the reputations of various local politicos at stake, it’s unlikely any of this sort of dirt will see the light of day.
There are, however, glimmers–strong hints, if you will– that can be used to shed a little light to make the case against her incumbency.
Friends in High Places
Let’s start with the kind of case District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis won’t pursue, a useful tool for protecting political allies and their backers. This case involves a city employee who refused to play along with the business as usual crowd and got fired as a result.
From Voice of San Diego:
Former city deputy economic development director Scott Kessler filed suit in July 2009, alleging the Mayor’s Office directed him to bend contracting rules to favor Marco Li Mandri, a well-known civic leader in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood and a Sanders supporter. Kessler says he refused. Kessler also argues the Mayor’s Office ultimately fired him after he gave a copy of a joint FBI and San Diego Police Department investigation he obtained about Li Mandri’s involvement in a North Bay parking and business improvement district to the city’s Ethics Commission. (That criminal case never came to anything. San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ office didn’t pursue charges in that case, and Li Mandri has denied any wrongdoing.)
Here’s the background on the 65 page single-spaced report submitted to Dumanis by FBI agent Gerald Cook and SDPD officer Dan Vile on April 23, 2007, according to Don Bauder at the Reader:
The joint FBI/police investigation got under way in April of 2005, when Kessler, then head of the nongovernmental San Diego Business Improvement District Council, told the police about alleged conflict-of-interest violations in the North Bay Association. The first conflict of interest occurred, the report says, when Li Mandri, who was hired as a consultant to set up the district, became the district’s executive director, with a $50,000 salary. On a similar note, the investigators say, “Although not a focus of this investigation, Li Mandri had been hired by the City to form the Little Italy [business improvement district] and subsequently, after the [district] was formed, was hired by the organization that received the [district] administration contract.”
In 2001 Paul Mannino held the unpaid position of president of the North Bay Association and Li Mandri was its paid executive director. According to the joint FBI/police report, Mannino wanted to award a $50,000-a-year subcontract for security work to a company that Mannino would set up. Kessler told Mannino that it was an obvious conflict of interest. So, according to the report, Mannino then took over Li Mandri’s position as executive director of the North Bay Association under a subcontract from Li Mandri. Lo and behold, Li Mandri’s New City America then got two community development block grant subcontracts from North Bay….
…The investigators gathered copious documents from such places as New City America and the homes of Li Mandri and Mannino. The documents indicate that there’d been a quid pro quo arrangement between the two men. Conclusion: Li Mandri and Mannino were guilty of violating many laws.
Kessler settled with the City of San Diego in 2011, unable to fight any further against the $450,000 in outside counsel retained by the city.
From UT-San Diego: (Spoiler alert–Carl DeMaio does the right thing. )
Scott Kessler, who made $120,000 annually as the city’s former deputy director of economic development division, sued the city after he was fired in late 2008. The council voted 7-1 in favor of the settlement, with Carl DeMaio dissenting because the deal’s details weren’t disclosed before the public vote.
Why the Cops Dislike Bonnie Dumanis
The Kessler case was, at least on the surface, not that big a deal. He can’t talk about it because of a non-disclosure clause in the settlement. I cite it here because it left a paper trail. But I’ve been told repeatedly, always with the admonition “don’t use my name” that the District Attorney’s refusal to prosecute investigations is the major reason why so many law enforcement associations in Southern California have endorsed her opponent Bob Brewer.
We’re talking about honest law enforcement officers trying to do their job, only to see their efforts thwarted. And the buck stops with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. The confidential nature of criminal investigations would make the act of whistle-blowing (or even complaining) a crime, or at least a civil offense. Those cops only have to look at what happened to Kessler (I’m told there are others, whose cases are sealed) to know the City of San Diego’s legal resources have them in an untenable position.
The Kind of Case She Will Prosecute
Back in July, 2007 Chula Vista City Councilman Steve Castaneda was indicted on 15 charges relating to allegations about an apartment he rented. Thirteen charges of perjury and two counts of failing to disclose income on a statement of economic interests and a $7 million investigation added up to nothing, as three charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, a jury acquitted him on six charges and a judge declared a mistrial on the rest of prosecution’s case.
From the UT-San Diego story about the verdicts:
The councilman has described Deputy District Attorney Patrick O’Toole’s investigation as a “political witch hunt” intended to prevent him from winning re-election. He said last year that District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis sought to damage his reputation and help his rival, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox…
…A year was spent examining rumors that Castaneda had some dealings with real estate developer Ashok Israni, but no evidence was found that Castaneda received any money or favors from the businessman.
Castaneda wasn’t the only recipient of the DA’s prosecutorial munificence. Then-Mayor Steve Padilla’s aide Jason Moore ended up pleading guilty on perjury charges.
A recent report from KPBS certainly suggests Dumanis used her powers to punish those who crossed her politically.
”I received a call from Bonnie in my office, asking me, encouraging me to support one of the candidates who was an employee of hers in her office and a friend,” said former Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla, who needed to fill a vacant City Council seat at the time.
The employee was Dumanis aide Jesse Navarro. Padilla said he told Dumanis that Navarro wouldn’t do because he needed to replace outgoing Councilwoman Patty Davis with another female Democrat.
A few weeks after the then-mayor’s refusal to play along, the investigations started. First there was an unfruitful probe into Padilla and the rest of the Chula Vista City Council for not attending redevelopment corporation meetings but collecting pay for them. Then came the indictments of Castaneda and Moore.
Was this a mere coincidence? I don’t think so. More from KPBS:
The chief prosecutor in all of those investigations — Deputy District Attorney Patrick O’Toole — also declined an interview for this story.
But he provided a written statement, saying he was unaware of Dumanis’ call to Padilla until early 2008, but if he had known about it he would have insisted the office recuse itself from prosecuting Castaneda.
O’Toole wrote that he first learned of the call in a letter from the Chula Vista Better Government Association, which claimed Dumanis abused her power by trying to influence the Chula Vista council appointment process, among other allegations. O’Toole said he tried to discuss his concerns with Dumanis’ top staff member, Assistant District Attorney Jesse Rodriguez, but “was interrupted and told just to do my job,” O’Toole wrote.
O’Toole is among those supporting Dumanis opponent Bob Brewer now.
Ex-Whistle Blower Quits Over Politicization
Former IRS agent A. David Stutz holds a special place in San Diego history. The short version is that he was integral to the investigation of financial malfeasance leading to the fall of this city’s then-ruling elite, headed by C. Arnholt Smith. Then-Mayor Frank Curran, along with eight other past and former councilmembers were indicted for bribery and conspiracy. Following the Nixon administration’s refusal to let Stutz testify in the trial, they walked free.
Stutz left the IRS and went to work for the [drumroll…] DA’s office. So this statement endorsing Dumanis opponent Bob Brewer carries some weight with me:
“I served with the 2 previous DAs and, after she was elected, Dumanis appointed me to be in charge of all political violations. In a short period of time it became apparent she was using the office for her own political gain and not the public good. I retired rather than watch her destroy a great office and she has continued to abuse the office for her own personal benefit.
The Bigger Picture
I’ll go Stutz one better and say Dumanis ‘personal benefit’ includes the larger interests of the power elite in San Diego. She’s the person who keeps their political careers alive; the keeper of the flame, as it were. And getting rid of the current District Attorney is one of the best things the people of San Diego can do for the best interests of the city as a whole. On the other hand, if you’re Papa Doug Manchester and want to keep your ‘personal benefits’ out of the spotlight, Bonnie Dumanis is an ideal choice.
Sending City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s crew–he’s termed out but expects to anoint a successor– packing wouldn’t hurt, either. Just sayin’.