- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- DA’S CHOICE: Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello has heavily criticized his opponent for accepting money from a defense attorney while actively prosecuting a case.
A Monday in April began much like any other for San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Gerry Shea. He arrived at work and put in his regular morning appearance. But later that day—and unbeknownst to much of his staff—Shea left and began the 200-mile journey to ask officials from the California Office of the Attorney General in Los Angeles to investigate one of his own.
For many people in the office, it was a peculiar trip given that most interactions between SLO County prosecutors and the Attorney General staff are made over the phone or in writing. And given the mounting tensions within the office, it was an action that piqued suspicion and concerns about the bleeding line between normal day-to-day business and the campaign between Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow and Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello.
The biggest problem, and one that continues to be a problem, is that Shea had already given his much-coveted endorsement to Covello. That endorsement, combined with Shea’s three-and-a-half-hour trip to hand deliver a report to the Attorney General, has a large number of people within the office feeling that the district attorney isn’t necessarily fighting for them, because they’re fighting for Dow.
“People are speculating about whether his loyalty to the office is in conflict with his loyalty to Covello,” said one person in the office, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Later that week, the results of Shea’s meeting were part of a front-page story in The Tribune titled “Donations to Dow campaign raise ethical questions.”
Ordinarily, it’s tough to say whether the trip would have elicited anything more than a shrug from other members of the District Attorney’s Office. But for the last few months, and increasingly over recent weeks, the situation in SLO County’s top law enforcement branch has been anything but ordinary.
For the first time in far more than a decade, politics have entered what’s supposed to be a staunchly apolitical office. The pitched battle for SLO County’s most powerful law enforcement office has pitted colleagues against one another as Dow, backed by nearly every deputy district attorney in the office, faces Covello’s hefty legal experience and the support of the existing district attorney, among others. (Local defense attorney Paul Phillips recently added his name to the candidate list as a write-in and alternative to the two choices.)
“The last debate highlighted the animosity that Dow and Covello hold for each other,” said Dr. Michael Latner, a Cal Poly professor in the Political Science Department. “On top of that, you have a deep reservoir of financial contributions coming from the legal community, which enables the campaigns to pile it on through paid media. The campaign has devolved into two monkeys slinging shit at one another, and Paul Phillips pointing out that there is a lot of shit being thrown around in the DA’s office.”
The eye of the shit storm
- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- LAME DUCK: With approximately six months left in office, District Attorney Gerry Shea has received criticism from within his office over political endorsements and his handling of a recent campaign controversy.
After declaring his intent to run for district attorney in November 2013, Dow approached Shea through his supervisor and asked to be taken out of his courtroom assignments during the campaign. Several people within the office told New Times that Dow had asked to be taken off courts. Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran would only confirm that Dow asked to be reassigned from courts to a filing job, but that Shea denied the request.
Stepping out of court in order to campaign isn’t an unprecedented request. In 2002, John Trice asked to be reassigned to a similar position during his campaign for judge—a request that Shea approved. Though Shea allowed Trice to run a campaign outside the rigors of a courtroom, Dow was stuck with his regular assignment. It’s one of a handful of decisions that have caused many people within the office to question whether politics are always left at the door, as Shea is claiming.
Being left in court meant Dow would have less flexibility in his schedule to launch a campaign, as well as more trouble gathering funds. Early on, Dow said he approached a number of people to gain endorsements and campaign contributions. One of those people from whom he solicited support was James Murphy, a prominent local defense attorney who most often handles civil cases, but sometimes takes on criminal defendants.
As has now been widely circulated in the campaign, following the April 25 story that appeared in The Tribune, Dow accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Murphy while actively involved in one of Murphy’s cases. According to campaign disclosure documents, Murphy gave Dow $2,500 on Nov. 4, another $2,500 on Dec. 10, and continued pumping money into Dow’s coffers. The funds totaled $10,000 within the first four months of the campaign.
Covello’s team quickly capitalized on the donations, creating campaign materials and advertisements that called Dow out for engaging in unethical behavior and alleged he gave lesser charges to Murphy’s client.
“I don’t believe anyone who appeared on that case had any inkling of what was going on there,” Covello told New Times.
While several sources admitted it was politically unwise at best for Dow to accept money while prosecuting a case against Murphy’s client, they balked at the notion that justice was sold, as was described in campaign materials many deputy district attorneys said they received from Covello.
“We understand campaign rhetoric,” one internal source said. “But we really feel that [Covello] crossed the line.”
Several people within the office said Dow didn’t attempt to hide the contributions, that he asked to be removed from the courtroom setting, and that while he believed the donations were accepted legally, he chose to recuse himself from the case to remove the appearance of impropriety.
One source in the office told New Times, “I know Dan wanted to get off the case for some time, but Gerry, as it would be, sort of drug his feet.”
Asked about the contributions he received, Dow said he still feels he did nothing wrong.
“No, I have no regrets,” he said. “I regret that my opponent has twisted it. What I tried to do as an ethical choice was turned and twisted to make it look unethical.”
Both sides have differing accounts of how the money may or may not have affected the case. Though other accounts make it seem as though Dow lowered charges after receiving money from Murphy, Dow’s supporters point to court records that show Dow had expressed he would be adding charges on Oct. 31, four days before he received his first contribution from Murphy. Yet critics allege those lesser charges set the stage for a reduced sentence.
But for Dow’s supporters, the only relevant points—indeed the points that continue to boil within the office—are that Dow recused himself and that the case was vetted by several prosecutors and Shea himself.
As one internal source told New Times, “This is a manufactured type of issue.”
Deputy District Attorney Andy Baird was one of the prosecutors who reviewed the case after Dow recused himself, and Deputy District Attorney Craig van Rooyen entered the final plea agreement. Baird said the plea agreement and sentence for the defendant in the case “seemed appropriate given my experience in the area.”
Baird, who said he’s been a prosecutor in SLO County for approximately 24 years, told New Times he was unfamiliar with much of the political fallout that’s occurred as a result of that case, but said the sentence wasn’t overly lenient.
“When I heard about the final result, I thought, ‘Gee, that was a little tougher than I would have done.’”
Ultimately, the defendant pleaded no contest to three of six counts, and received a year in jail and three years’ formal probation while avoiding a lifetime registration as a sex offender.
In a phone interview with New Times, Murphy railed against the implication that he used political donations to buy a favorable verdict, adding that the ultimate sentence included twice as much jail time as he had fought for.
“That deal was sanctioned by the upper level people at the DA’s office; now they want to turn it into a political agenda,” Murphy said, noting that he’s given large campaign contributions to such officials as Sheriff Ian Parkinson and Judge Trice. “I don’t really frankly give a shit what everybody thinks; I care about what people think about Dan [Dow]. All I did was fight for a client I felt deserved to be fought for.”
After Dow requested to be removed from the case, after it was reassigned and reviewed by other prosecutors within the office, and after Shea brought the issue to SLO County Counsel to ensure no illegal activity took place, it appeared at the time that the issue had been resolved.
And for two months, nobody questioned the circumstances any further. Later, based on a complaint from Covello, Shea revisited the issue, this time more aggressively.
“Everything’s OK, and then two months later they say, ‘Yeah, no, we’re taking it to the Attorney General,’” one person within the office told New Times.
In mid April, Shea went back to County Counsel for another opinion. County Counsel Rita Neal couldn’t disclose much to New Times about the issue, citing attorney-client confidentiality, but said Shea sought advice about Dow’s involvement in the case, first in January and again in April “as information became available to him.” In the second instance, her office recommended he seek independent advice from the Attorney General.
“Gerry Shea’s been very conscious to treat everybody right in the campaign,” Neal said.
Other sources, however, said that Shea was intimately involved throughout the process.
“Everyone knew about the money,” an internal source told New Times.
In an email exchange between Dow and Shea in mid February, Dow wrote to schedule a meeting with Shea based on “the note on my chair this morning requesting that I stop by to discuss my caseload and a solution to potential conflicts.” Dow also asked to have a SLO Government Attorneys Union representative present.
“At this point, considering you have endorsed Mr. Covello publicly, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to have a closed meeting with you regarding my caseload or any possible matters relating to my campaign for District Attorney,” Dow wrote.
Shea wrote back two days later: “I completely understand, Dan. I do believe that the office can provide for you an additional solution to potential conflicts.”
New Times asked for comment from Shea on this subject. He responded in writing: “The matter was reviewed further with County Counsel in April because I learned new information regarding the dates and amounts of donations.
“I have endorsed Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello, and I stand firmly behind that endorsement. There are members of our office who disagree with my endorsement, and, as I said, that is their right. It has not affected the ability of our office to continue to effectively investigate and prosecute our cases, though.”
Covello, for his part, said he raised the contribution issue to Shea when he learned of the amount of money and timing in which the donations came in.
“When I heard about the case, I brought it to the attention of the district attorney,” Covello said.
He called Dow’s behavior a “tremendous breach of trust in the community,” adding that Dow worked the case for approximately seven months, accepted money for his campaign, and waited for a month before recusing himself. Additionally, he said Dow never informed the judge in the case that he’d accepted a campaign contribution from Murphy.
Though neither County Counsel nor the Office of the Attorney General found any illegality in contributions, the ethical question is less definitive, and rumors have begun to percolate that the State Bar Association is investigating. An official from the State Bar would neither confirm nor deny any investigation. Several people in the local legal community told New Times they believe it’s a rumor used to stoke the anti-Dow fires.
Asked if he would have handled the situation differently had he not been running against Dow, Covello answered: “If I hadn’t been in the position I’m in now, I would have done much more. When you see something like that, you have an obligation to investigate.”
Yet for other people within the office, the way Shea reignited the issue at the request of a candidate whom he’d endorsed, and the way Covello’s campaign spun the issue, went beyond a simple investigation.
“The basic gist is this is affecting the office,” one person said about the ongoing rhetoric from Covello’s campaign. “It’s blending or blurring into an office issue by saying that justice can be bought. I think it’s affecting us.”
Cause and effect
- FILE PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- HOT SEAT: Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow contends he did nothing wrong by accepting campaign contributions during an active prosecution, and his fellow prosecutors believe he handled the situation appropriately.
In the aftermath of accusations against Dow, several deputy district attorneys met multiple times with Shea and asked him to publicly clear the record and reaffirm that the verdict in the case wasn’t sold in exchange for political contributions.
Unsatisfied with the response, they put the request in writing on May 14, gathered signatures from more than 20 deputy district attorneys, and gave Shea until the end of the day on May 16 to respond. In that letter, a copy of which was obtained by New Times, they outlined seven points countering “the ongoing misrepresentations that are being made by the Assistant District Attorney who continues to allege that justice was for sale in a case resolution that you personally authorized.”
Specifically, they wrote that Dow recused himself in January, that he had no input in the plea agreement after recusing himself, that Shea was made aware of the circumstances in the case, that three attorneys independently reviewed the proposed disposition, that County Counsel approved of the process, that Shea personally approved the terms of the disposition, and that van Rooyen was told the plea agreement had been approved and he would stand and take the plea.
“Further, as line deputies trying to do our jobs in court every day, we need to know that when we are following office policy and directives from you and the Chief Deputy, you will go to bat for us—publicly if necessary—to defend our actions and the integrity of our office. … As prosecutors we are called upon daily to seek out and reveal the truth. That is what we are asking you to do—before it is too late.”
Shea responded in a May 16 memo.
“I have endeavored to create an office that serves the public with dedication, efficiency, and integrity and have supported and respected all of the individual attorneys within this office. I will continue to do so until my term ends in January, 2015.
“I believe that I have made consistent efforts to address this entire matter carefully and thoughtfully in order to ensure that the rights of everyone are respected and that everyone is treated fairly. I realize many of you feel I should make public statements regarding this office’s handling of the disposition of the … case, but I believe it is not appropriate or necessary for me to do so. The facts regarding our office’s handling of the case have been detailed in the media’s reports. The candidates’ opinions regarding those facts are not something I should, or will, address.”
Written responses are about all that most people are seeing out of Shea lately. According to a number of people who spoke with New Times, in the weeks since the issue went public, Shea has been absent from the office more than usual.
“He’s been fairly scarce,” one person said. “It’s disheartening.”
More recently, Dow was dealt perhaps one of the most underappreciated political middle fingers of the campaign when Covello’s campaign announced a new endorsement from Grover Trask, now a private practice attorney in Riverside and the past district attorney of Riverside County. Dow, who previously worked as a prosecutor during Trask’s tenure—in fact, he was named “prosecutor of the year” in 2006, Trask’s last year in office—recently named the man as a personal hero.
When asked about the endorsement, Trask said in a written response that he has worked with Shea “for many years and have great respect for him as a career prosecutor” He added that Shea’s endorsement of Covello “carries great weight with me” and said Covello’s experience, leadership level, “and Gerry’s support” led to his endorsement.
Trask and Covello, however, have never met.
Covello said he reached out to Trask and provided references to receive the endorsement, adding, “Grover Trask wouldn’t give an endorsement lightly.” Shea told New Times he didn’t speak to Trask about the endorsement.
More recently, Dow’s campaign has begun to fire back, accusing Covello of soliciting contributions from Murphy, the same defense attorney at the center of Dow’s contribution controversy. In a recent KCBX debate, Dow and Covello again butted heads. Each accused the other of mudslinging, Covello accused Dow of unethical behavior, and Dow accused Covello of hypocrisy for seeking contributions from Murphy, which Covello denied doing.
Covello told New Times that he informed several defense attorneys early on that he was running for office, but denied asking for any money. Murphy, however, told New Times he got the distinct impression Covello was seeking funds, adding he felt that the notion that Covello “would throw me under the bus … is disgraceful.”
Murphy has continued to fund Dow’s campaign, even after the issue over his initial contributions went public. According to recently filed statements, Murphy had given Dow $18,500 as of May 17, on top of the $5,000 he gave in 2013.
But it’s simply the latest issue in a campaign that quickly strayed from focusing solely on issues and took a head dive straight into the muck.
“The only reason he’s talking about it is to distract people from what’s really important,” Dow said in the KCBX debate, responding to Covello’s earlier jab about the campaign contributions. “… It’s wrong, it’s bad for our community, and I’m going to continue to talk about the issues we care about.”
Covello responded that Dow “keeps accusing me of mud slinging” but Dow had accused him of taking inappropriate unclaimed donations from another local defense attorney.
“This is all just political nonsense,” Covello said. “The DA’s office should be the most apolitical, nonpolitical office in government.”
On June 3, it could all be over. Several people who spoke with New Times speculated that there could be staff turnover in the department, whichever way the election goes. Barring an outcome that pushes the election to a runoff, the race will soon be decided, and the politics will be put to rest—though it’s hard to say whether the internal fights will subside anytime soon.
And there are still six months before the next district attorney takes office.
Contact Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley at firstname.lastname@example.org.