Local lawyers among first witnesses in Bar proceeding
Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander's trial got under way Monday in a tiny courtroom in the downtown San Francisco high rise that serves as headquarters for the State Bar, the agency that licenses and disciplines California's 176,000 lawyers.
State Bar prosecutors have charged Alexander with seven charges of corruption and other alleged ethical transgressions. He faces possible disbarment. State Bar officials believe he is the first sitting district attorney to face such a disciplinary trial.
Alexander is charged with making a $14,000 loan to a probation officer preparing probation reports for two of his clients when he was a public defender, receiving a $6,000 loan from a defense attorney and then dismissing charges against the attorney's client, and improperly discussing a case with a drug defendant without her lawyer present.
Alexander claims he is a victim of small-town politics and his many political enemies, some made during the contentious and close election for district attorney in 2010.
"They have all been contentious," Crescent City defense attorney Leroy Davies testified from the witness stand Monday when asked about the last DA's election. "But yes, this was a contentious election."
Davies was the first of several witnesses State Bar prosecutors plan to call over the next two weeks of trial.
Two others witnesses testified Monday, including a tribal judge called by Alexander's lawyers who said she believes the punishment of disbarment to be too harsh even if all the charges are proved.
A third witness, defense attorney Darren McElfresh, also testified about his interactions with Alexander.
McElfresh testified that Alexander was a "hard worker" who put in long hours in the DA's Office.
McElfresh said the loans were the subject of ongoing "scuttlebutt" discussions at the County Courthouse.
He said the loan to the probation officer "had the appearance of impropriety."
Davies testified that Alexander's methamphetamine prosecution policy was "irrational" and too harsh. Davies testified that Alexander seeks the harshest penalty possible when prosecuting meth crimes, going so far as to charge a 19-year-old skateboarder arrested with a small amount of the drug with a "transportation" felony rather than misdemeanor possession.
Alexander is a former methamphetamine addict who lost his Orange County criminal defense practice when he was briefly suspended from practicing law for improperly keeping clients' fees.
Davies testified that Alexander led Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the county's Juvenile Hall while in private practice and then as district attorney. Davies said that he believed Alexander's participation was inappropriate because many of the AA participants are defendants being prosecuted by the district attorney and that "teens tend to talk a lot about their problems."
Alexander muttered "that's not true" when Davies said he was sure that Alexander conducted the meetings after his district attorney election.
In fact, Alexander argues that State Bar prosecutors are trying to disbar him because of his addiction and past drug abuse. He filed a lawsuit last week in San Francisco Superior Court, accusing the State Bar of inflicting emotional distress and violating his civil rights as a recovering addict. He is seeking a halt to the prosecution and undisclosed damages. A San Francisco judge has scheduled an Oct. 24 hearing. Alexander's trial is expected to continue until at least then.
The suit alleges former Deputy DA Mordechai Pelta, former DA Michael Riese and defense attorney Karen Olson have filed multiple false complaints against Alexander since 2006. It also states Pelta was the source of all but one of the complaints filed recently that has prompted the State Bar to its current disciplinary actions.
Pelta could not be reached for comment Monday. Olson declined comment, noting that she had not been served with the complaint.
The suit stated Riese filed a bar complaint against Alexander in 2006; an allegation Riese denies. The complaint based on an ex parte communication with a local judge eventually led to a sanction against Alexander.
"From as little as I know, it strikes me as retaliatory at this late date ... and it subjects a whole gamut of liability for the county," said Riese, noting he has not received a copy of the complaint.
Both Riese and Pelta filed suit against the county and Alexander earlier this year. Riese's suit alleges Alexander went on a crusade to discredit and humiliate him and Pelta's claims his employee rights were violated when he contacted the State Bar about alleged improprieties of Alexander.
Alexander says he's been clean and sober for nine years, but that State Bar prosecutors are still pursuing him for his past transgressions.
Alexander argues that the loans made to and by him involved close personal friends.
On Monday, Alexander's attorney, Farschad Farzan, attempted to show State Bar Judge Lucy Armendariz, who will decide the case, how intertwined the Del Norte legal community is.
Prompted by Farzan, Davies conceded loaning a Del Norte County prosecutor enough money to buy drinks at the Elks Club and purchasing ammo clips purchasing from a bailiff. Farzan also tried to engage Davies in a discussion about his own attempts to win election as district attorney and judge, but the judge decided those questions weren't relevant to Alexander's case.
Finally, the State Bar says Alexander should be disciplined for discussing a pending drug case with the defendant without her lawyer present.
Alexander argues that the defendant "barged" into his office late on a Friday, demanding to talk about her case. Alexander said the defendant's lawyer had previously authorized him to speak to her alone and that the conversation lasted "two or three minutes" and focused on the defendant's participation in a drug diversion program in place of a criminal prosecution.
Alexander says he later learned that the defendant was wearing a "wire" when the conversation occurred and urged the State Bar to obtain the recording to support his version of events. She refused to turn over a copy to Alexander. She gave the original to Davies, who was representing her boyfriend in the same drug case.
Davies provided a copy of the recording with the court, but it wasn't played.
Triplicate staff writer Anthony Skeens contributed to this report.