Tuesday, May 16, 2017
[Contra Costa County] Citing ‘willful misconduct,’ grand jury recommends Contra Costa DA be removed from office
MARTINEZ — A civil grand jury has recommended that Contra Costa’s top law enforcement officer be removed from office, citing revelations that he secretly misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money over several years.
A grand jury document released Thursday accuse District Attorney Mark A. Peterson of “willful or corrupt misconduct in office,” warranting his ouster. In December, Peterson admitted to having spent more than $66,000 in campaign funds on movie tickets, clothes and other personal expenses from 2011-2015, when he was serving as treasurer of his re-election campaign.
Peterson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Under state law, the grand jury’s accusation will now be delivered to a Contra Costa Superior Court judge, who is to either appoint a prosecuting officer or turn the matter over to a district attorney in an adjoining county. After that, the matter could result in a jury trial to decide on the grand jury’s findings.
Use of the civil grand jury to remove an elected official from office “is very uncommon,” said government ethics expert Michael Martello. Martello was city attorney of Mountain View in 2002, when a council member in that city was removed from office after a three-week trial.
In response to the grand jury’s accusation, the District Attorney’s Office union president, prosecutor Aron DeFerrari, said he called for an “emergency” association board meeting at 8 a.m. Friday “to discuss what actions to take in response to the grand jury’s recommendation that Mr. Peterson be removed from office.” He declined to comment further.
The grand jury’s move is the latest political headache for Peterson, who has come under fire — both internally and from outside his office — since information about the misappropriated funds became public. In January, he was fined $45,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which found he’d violated the state’s political reform act nine times.
Several Contra Costa prosecutors, including DeFerrari, have publicly condemned him. Others have been privately critical but declined to go on the record out of fear of retaliation. After being elected in 2010, Peterson was sued by multiple colleagues who alleged they were punished for supporting Peterson’s opponent, Dan O’Malley.
Contra Costa prosecutor Satish Jallepalli, a donor to Peterson’s 2014 re-election campaign, is supporting Santa Clara prosecutor Patrick Vanier, who last week announced his intention to run against Peterson in 2018.
“For too long, the community and the people who work in that office have had to suffer from Mark Peterson’s dysfunctional leadership,” Vanier said in a phone interview Thursday. “I look forward to rebuilding trust within the DA’s office and the much larger Contra Costa community.
“He should do the right thing, look at his conduct and the admissions he’s already made for the FPPC and allow someone to take over who will run the office in a respectful and honorable manner,” Vanier said.
Peterson, in a written statement issued in December — minutes before the FPPC’s documents detailing his violations were made public — said he was “humbled and embarrassed” by his conduct. He said he considered the $66,000 to be a loan and intended to fully repay it to his campaign account. But FPPC records show he only stopped spending campaign cash on personal expenses after he found out he was being audited in 2015.
And in his campaign’s financial disclosures signed under penalty of perjury and submitted to the FPPC, Peterson makes no mention of “loaning” money to himself. In 2014, when he spent $24,504.03 of his campaign’s money on personal expenses, he reported zero in loan expenditures that year.
Calls for Peterson’s resignation have also come from this newspaper’s editorial board, the county’s public defender, and others. Some, including a former Contra Costa prosecutor, have suggested his actions constituted embezzlement.
May 11, 2017
East Bay Times
By Nate Gartrell