James Tressler / Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 @ 8 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
Letter From 2003: The Recall of District Attorney Paul De Santos
Ed. note — Lost Coast Outpost Istanbul Bureau Chief James Tressler has written a new novel.It’s called “The Lost Coast D.A.” The book’s tagline notes that it is based on true events.
Which true events? We’re not sure, but it seems to be about a lawyer named Paul De Santos. De Santos shocks his small coastal California county by winning an upset election to become district attorney. He soon goes after WestPAC, a nasty timber company that’s mowing down all the trees. But the company isn’t going away without a fight; rather, it turns its resources toward defeating the man who dared challenge their operation.
The story is an “epic community struggle that raises questions about the integrity of the district attorney’s office, the role of money in politics, and corporate responsibility to both citizens and the environment.”
An excerpt from the novel follows.
The Christmas holidays arrived. After the New Year, I decided I hadn’t really talked to De Santos in a long time. I mean, we kept in contact quite regularly, but usually it was just to grab a quote in response to some twist or turn in the campaign. My coverage of De Santos, to a critic, would come across as superficial, always having him on the defensive.
So with the start of the New Year, and the election now less than 90 days away, I thought it would be a good time to catch up, have a proper sit-down. I want to go back and remember something of that chat, for without that afternoon, I’m not sure if I would ever have bothered to write this story.
I managed to get an appointment. It was on a Friday afternoon, when the courthouse is generally a bit slower. That Friday afternoon was cold, rainy, one of those January mornings when it feels like the new year seems an interminably long road ahead.
I’d been to the district attorney’s office before, back when Kramer was in office. Being new to the courts, I’d paid Kramer a visit. He was very gracious and generous with his time. Knowing that I was inexperienced, Kramer assumed rightly that I knew next to nothing. So that morning he’d given me a run down on basic court procedure. He walked me through the process, from arrest to conviction and sentencing. Only about 10 percent of all cases in California actually go to trial, most end at the arraignment stage, when the defendant pleads either guilty or no contest.
Knowing these little “ABCs” is crucial for a reporter. It’s always important to know what stage of the process is happening, and what’s next. For example, police arrest a man suspected of killing his wife. By law, the man should be arraigned within 48 hours. So as a reporter looking to follow-up on the story, you know when he’s supposed to be in front of the judge to enter a plea, and you of course want to be there.
As I say, Kramer was quite generous with his time, and I found his talk to be enormously useful down the road, when I began tackling the courts. On a side note, Kramer was also very conscientious and reliable about returning phone calls. This is a quality that endears public officials to the press, who are usually on deadline. With his successor, Paul De Santos, at least in the beginning, this quality was noticeably lacking. You’d have to literally run the guy down, as I did that afternoon after the meeting with the cops. He just didn’t seem to get it sometimes that he wasn’t a private attorney anymore, that it behooved him to be available to the press, especially when he was under fire.
But that was the past, I thought. I reminded myself that we had gotten off on the wrong foot, and that I was here to not only get a sense of where De Santos was, with the recall election less than 90 days off, but also in a way to “hit the restart button” on our relations, as Uncle Joe Biden would say.
That Friday afternoon, it was quiet in the district attorney’s office. The secretary had taken the afternoon off, I think, for De Santos greeted me personally. He seemed a little tired (he was in shirtsleeves, which were rolled up, his gold-colored tie rumpled), a little worn around the eyes, but he flashed his youthful, surfer smile. “What’s up, Prez?” he said, shaking hands. “Come on back.”
I took a moment to survey the office. It was a corner office, with a wide panoramic view. You could see 5th Street beating four stories below, and beyond that you could see most of the downtown and all the way to the bay and the low hills surrounding the town.
Obviously, there had been some changes. There were the usual legal books stacked on shelves, the filing cabinets, the sturdy oak desk. But gone were the Giants paraphernalia that had adorned the walls during the Kramer era (he was a baseball fanatic, he’d listen to the games over the radio in his office). In their place, there was a surfboard (a gift from his wife) and a portrait of Lincoln in a modest frame.
I wish I had a transcript or recording of that chat. It would lend more immediacy, more vividness. But instead, I have to rely on memory of that conversation, now nearly 10 years ago.
I think we started off talking about the cops, his rocky relationship with law enforcement, the dispute over the re-tooled medical marijuana policies. I asked if the relationship had improved.
“I think it’s a question of working together,” Paul reflected. “I don’t think we necessarily need to be chummy (he used that word). What’s important is that our office maintains an open line of communication. As you know, there have been cutbacks. Budgets are really tight. What’s important is that we work together to identify and prioritize cases, that we help each other do our jobs. It’s not a question of being friends. It’s all about being effective.”
I asked about the WestPAC lawsuit, but De Santos seemed disinclined to go into any great detail. Besides, it was Daley’s case, for the most part. “I think there’s a case to be heard,” he said. “But I definitely urge you to get with Tim on that.”
“But it’s your job on the line, not Daley’s,” I insisted. “Isn’t WestPAC bankrolling this recall because your office has filed a lawsuit?”
“Prez, do we conduct our business in this office based on the actions of one company? No. Can we base all of our judgments on whether or not a recall is going to happen? No, we cannot.” He had a habit of speaking that way, using rhetorical questions. I suppose it was the lawyer in him.
I asked if he was getting more comfortable in the job.
“Yeah, I think so.” De Santos got up and strode over to the window, looking down at the traffic. “There’s a lot of management involved. A lot of administration, I’m not sure I was prepared for that. You know when you’ve got 15 prosecutors, and a budget of $2 million, hundreds of cases, yeah, it’s a lot. Then there’s working with the individual prosecutors, consulting them on which cases were best to file – where we’ve got the best chance of a conviction. There’s a lot on your plate.”
I remarked that during the campaign, he asserted that Kramer, after 20 years as district attorney, had fallen out of touch with the modern courtroom.
“You promised to get in the courtroom,” I said. “To try cases personally.”
“Yeah,” Paul turned from the window and grinned ruefully, as if reminded of a dinner party with a key campaign sponsor. “And I still intend to do that. Like I said, I didn’t anticipate the amount of admin this job would entail, and of course there’s this recall … I feel like I haven’t stopped campaigning in nearly two years. But I’m not making excuses. It’ll happen. It just needs time.”
“What do you think of the recall anyway?” I asked. “Since we’re on the subject.”
“Prez,” De Santos said, wrapping his hands around a knee, “What we’re seeing here is a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country. Everywhere. People are divided. Over the war, the economy. There are deep, fundamental divisions, about who we are and where we are going.”
I couldn’t help but notice Lincoln’s picture on the wall, gazing silently, passively. I’m not trying to inject some heavy, false symbolism. The portrait was just there. Listening to De Santos that rainy afternoon, one could hardly mistake him for Old Abe: this surfer “dude,” this “really nice man,” who had seemingly breezed into the public spotlight on the strength of his Southern Cal tan and cool, relaxed grin as much as anything else. Still, as he spoke, various images swam through my head: angry timber workers who stood outside the courthouse holding up “RECALL THE DA” signs, the hippy environmentalists who spoke of De Santos in glowing, almost reverent tones (“It’s so brave, what he’s trying to do …”), and further images, anti-war demonstrators, here as much as elsewhere, the partisan paralysis in Sacramento that left the state bleeding red ink.
Here was a guy who barely 18 months before had been just another private attorney, and not even a highly respected one. Sure, everyone in Old Town knew him and loved him. “He’s so nice,” as the sandwich girl has told us, over and over. As a candidate he’d been written off by the courthouse network, by our paper, dismissed as “dumber than a box of rocks,” by D.A. prosecutors like Gloria Martin, an upstart who could never seriously challenge a long-time incumbent like Gary Kramer.
Sure, he spoke using a lot of rhetorical questions and generalities, sayings and phrases that he could have gleaned from anywhere – Time, Newsweek, CNN, or, closer to home, Salazar. I don’t know. But under the circumstances, he seemed to have struck a nerve. He seemed to have a grasp of the situation – a battle on many fronts – and seemed to me perfectly capable of surviving. He didn’t have an ax to grind, and he seemed genuinely set on serving the public. The “oblivious” quality that I’d seen earlier now, that casualness that could be infuriating, now seemed almost an asset, for he seemed insulated somewhat from pressure – he didn’t exude stress. I remembered a conversation we’d once had about a man he’d defended as a private attorney. The man had been convicted of multiple murders, and was serving a long sentence at Pelican Bay State Prison.
“What was he like?” I asked.
De Santos paused to consider. He cocked his head.
“Charming,” he said, finally. “Funny.”
“A charming, funny guy?” I remember being thunderstruck. “You’re talking about a man who brutally murdered several people.”
“I know,” De Santos said. He seemed as baffled as I. “People are strange.”
Maybe the WestPAC lawsuit was in fact a doomed, Quixotic struggle, cooked up by a bunch of local enviros (as the Recall Movement posited), maybe he was just out to get his name mentioned in the Big Press, but I didn’t think so. He was no firebrand, nor ham. On the contrary, he still struck me, as he had before, as airy, aloof, as if he were mystified at all the hoopla, the “whirlwind of concurrent circumstances,” surrounding him. But I did sense a change, a growing confidence.
“By the way,” De Santos said, interrupting my thoughts, “We’re installing a new electronic filing system.”
“Should be by the first of next month. The idea is, we have to spend a lot of time researching old cases using the paper filing system. With the electronic system it will be a lot easier.”
We chatted a bit more about the system. De Santos invited me to come by in a few weeks when the system was up and running. I asked how much it cost (I can’t remember now), and couldn’t help but smile when De Santos justified the cost by explaining how it would save prosecutors’ time, and make the office more modern and efficient. He was starting to sound like a public official. He was learning the game; perhaps, at last, we both were.
The interview was about over.
De Santos walked with me outside into the main office. A handful of prosecutors were there, finishing their lunches and getting ready for the afternoon session. One of them nodded and waved as we passed.
I thanked him for his time.
“Sure, Prez.” De Santos flashed that cool smile, as if he’d shown me some tasty waves that nobody else knew about. As we walked, I noticed that he still had a slight limp from the surfing accident that had nearly cost him his life the previous spring.
“Still surfing?” I asked.
“Sure – when I have time.”
“Don’t you ever worry about sharks?” Our coast was well-known Great White country.
De Santos shrugged.
“You can’t think about that,” he said. “I mean, if it happens, it happens. There’s nothing you can do about it.”