HUMBOLDT – Paul Hagen has worked for several different district attorneys – including incumbent DA Paul Gallegos – as an environmental prosecutor and he says pervasive dissatisfaction with Gallegos’ management has led to his bid to replace him.
“The current District Attorney’s Office needs far better leadership for its staff and far better representation of the interests of the people of the county,” Hagen said.
Adding that “the bloom is off the rose” for Gallegos, Hagen highlighted staffing issues.
“There’s been an enormous drain of talent out of the office since the incumbent took over,” he said. “People have been fired, people have been driven out, people have left – you can say whatever you want to about (former DA) Terry Farmer and his policies but over a 20-year period, he put together a very good team of prosecutors.”
Now, Hagen added, the office has “a lot of first-year hires, a lot of people without a lot of experience and people with very questionable backgrounds.” There are also some qualified recent hires, he said, but Gallegos “doesn’t train them well, he doesn’t track their cases well and he doesn’t ensure that they coordinate with the various police agencies well.”
A high number of plea bargains, over-charging of cases, lowball settlements and “a fair amount of chaos in the court system where deputy DAs really don’t know what they’re handling” has led to a “situation where, quite frankly, justice is not being well-served,” Hagen continued.
He upheld his range of experience as a comparative basis for his assessment. He worked as an environmental analyst for Pillsbury Madison and Sutro, one of the nation’s largest law firms, from 1989 to 1995 and then worked for the Mendocino County DA’s Office as an environmental prosecutor for more than four years.
In 1998, he was hired to do environmental prosecution for Humboldt, Lake and Del Norte counties on a part-time basis by the California District Attorneys Association. It became a full-time job in 1999, when he moved to Arcata, where he still lives and serves as a member of the Arcata Planning Commission.
He switched to private practice in the summer of 2006 with the Eureka-based Bragg, Perlman, Russ, Stunich and Eads firm, whose clients include the City of Trinidad, the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District and the California Teachers Association.
Hagen’s mention of plea bargains prompted a question on what an appropriate amount is. He said charging is an important aspect of the situation and “whatever is charged needs to bear some relationship to what is settled,” something he believes is often lacking now.
One police chief told him that a man charged with rape had gotten a plea deal for trespassing. “He found that obscene – that was the word he used,” said Hagen.
“So what’s going on is that the young attorneys aren’t being trained well, they’re not being given good marching orders and there are no clear policies for them to follow,” he continued.
Hagen believes “the first order” of the DA is to be an administrator and to work with county government, police agencies and the public. “And when it comes to the public, you can’t over-promise and under-deliver,” he said. “You have to make yourself available, and if you say you’re going to do something you have to do it or make yourself available to explain why you haven’t – and that’s not being done.”
Taking on prosecution is something a DA does to “help pull the load” but Hagen believes high-profile trials shouldn’t be done by a DA unless absolutely necessary. “The question is, is the elected DA going into the courtroom for purely administrative purposes, to help out the staff or is he doing it for purely political purposes, to try to get press or curry favor with the public?” he asked.
When one is DA, “Your forte absolutely should not be being a trial lawyer,” Hagen continued. Asked if he thinks Gallegos has taken on cases for political reasons, he answered, “Without question.”
He named the filing of the Pacific Lumber lawsuit, the prosecution of former Fortuna Councilmember Debi August, the over-prosecution of former Blue Lake Police Chief Dave Gundersen and the case against two Eureka police officials in the Cheri Moore shooting as examples.
Hagen said that it’s not known how strong the evidence was in the Eureka Police case because it was “bungled” and dismissed. “Humboldt County once again made national news for having a bizarre prosecution come out of the DA’s Office,” he continued.
On prosecution priorities, Hagen said people are most concerned about violent crimes and property crimes. There is less consensus about some types of crimes, and in Humboldt, there’s a cultural acceptance of marijuana but also an emerging call for enforcement against it.
Asked what his approach to that would be, Hagen acknowledged that Gallegos “brought the DA’s Office more in line, I believe, with the mentality and beliefs of the community” but “there’s clearly a degree of permissiveness there.”
It’s led to an excessive amount of grows in residential neighborhoods, home invasion robberies and shootings, said Hagen, adding that Proposition 215’s permissiveness has contributed to those impacts. He referred to the City of Arcata’s enforcement approach, which relies on land use and zoning authority, as a sound one.
But the degree to which those zoning codes can be enforced has yet to be tested and Hagen believes the ultimate solution is to legalize marijuana and regulate it.
Methamphetamine is a “very vicious drug” that can lead to serious crime, and Hagen thinks people agree that tackling the “very large meth problem here” is an enforcement priority.
Environmental prosecution is Hagen’s specialty and he says “there has been very little of it that I can see” since his exit from the DA’s Office.
There was some media attention and a lot of speculation about the reason why he left. Asked about it, he said he was fired by the California District Attorneys Association and signed a settlement agreement which stipulated that he not talk about it.
But he was asked to give more detail when he added, “There can be consequences to speaking truth to power.”
Hagen said, “If you’re doing your job right, you need to tell the boss what the boss needs to hear whether the boss wants to hear it or not … if your boss doesn’t want to hear bad news or doesn’t want to hear advice, people who haven’t got the guts and the strength to do it won’t do it and they will keep their jobs, and those who do their jobs correctly despite the consequences will often suffer the consequences.
“And that’s what speaking truth to power is all about,” he continued. “And that’s what I did, and that’s what happened.”