Sunday, December 8, 2019

[Contra Costa County] Opinion: Borenstein: The rotting of Contra Costa’s political moral fabric

After the cases of the district attorney, elections chief, assessor and two judges, it’s time to raise the bar


Blog note: this article references a grand jury accusation.
The integrity of Contra Costa’s elected officials has fallen to a new low.
In the past 2 1/2 years, the district attorney and the elections chief have left office after they were caught lining their pockets with campaign funds.
The county assessor faces trial after a Grand Jury accusation that he should be removed from office after creating a hostile environment for his workers.
And two Contra Costa judges have been kicked off the bench for inappropriate behavior.
It’s time for residents to speak up, at the ballot box and in public forums, to demand better. It’s time for those seeking or holding office to change, with official actions and personal behavior, the culture that has enabled such rotting of the political moral fabric.
Unfortunately, that’s not the reaction we’re seeing. A county supervisor looks to capitalize on the situation to spike her pension. The assessor facing trial seeks to run for yet another office. And the county judiciary, when presented with a case to help clean up the system, drags its feet.
This ethical decline began with District Attorney Mark Peterson, who in 2017 pleaded no contest to felony perjury stemming from his use of $66,372 of campaign funds for personal items such as meals at restaurants, gasoline, clothing, movie tickets, hotel rooms and cell phone bills.
As part of the plea deal, he was sentenced to three years’ probation, forced to resign his office and required to perform 250 hours of community service. Subsequently, as a convicted felon, he lost his license to practice law.
The case of Joe Canciamilla, the clerk-recorder who oversaw county elections, was similar, but worse. He abruptly resigned Oct. 31 after state investigators found he illegally spent $130,529 of campaign funds on a vacation in Asia, remodeling his Hawaii home and other personal expenses.
Canciamilla tried to cover it up by presenting false information, including altered bank records, to state auditors. Like Peterson, Canciamilla, also an attorney, should face criminal charges and disbarment.
The county Board of Supervisors in February will appoint someone to serve the remaining three years of Canciamilla’s term. One hopeful is Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who is minimally qualified and temperamentally ill-suited for the job.
Her pitch: She plans to retire in 2023, so she would be a caretaker without political ambitions. By the way, the higher-paying clerk-recorder job would fatten her lifetime county pension by at least 56%.
Then there’s County Assessor Gus Kramer. It’s been nearly eight months since the county civil Grand Jury filed an accusation, a seldom-used process that triggers a trial on whether to remove a public official from office, alleging Kramer created a hostile work environment.
He told stories about conquests with women; made unwanted advances on a subordinate; talked about giving a sex toy to his niece; made crude comments about his sexual desires; and disparaged people of Mexican descent, according to the accusation.
County supervisors at first ignored employees’ concerns. Kramer says the allegations are part of some employees’ agenda against him.
Given the unusual case involving an elected official, the judiciary should move with alacrity. Instead, Judge Theresa Canepa and Judge Charles Burch have treated the accusation like any other case, allowing pre-trial motions to drag on for months. Burch finally set a tentative trial date of Jan. 27, which he seems prepared to delay if Kramer’s attorney files more motions.
Meanwhile, Kramer, facing a trial to remove him from one elected county office, is preparing to run for another. He has taken out papers for county supervisor in the March 3 election.
Then there are the Contra Costa judges removed from the bench.
The state Commission on Judicial Performance in November found that Judge John Laettner denied a criminal defendant due process by increasing her bail without a hearing or her presence in court, had conversations about cases without all attorneys present, and interacted with women in an “unwelcome, undignified, discourteous, and offensive” manner — including telling a deputy public defender she wasn’t spanked enough as a kid.
A year earlier, the commission permanently banned Judge Bruce Mills from the bench, the sixth discipline he had faced since 2001. Among the findings: Mills revoked a jailed man’s good behavior credits outside of a court hearing; had an improper conversation with the prosecutor in a drunken driving trial; and improperly interfered with a driving under the influence case involving his son.
Surely, Contra Costa can do better than this. It’s time to raise the ethical bar.
December 2, 2019
The Mercury News, The Milpitas Post
By Daniel Borenstein


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