HUMBOLDT – District Attorney Paul Gallegos has caused an historic but controversial transformation of his office and he says a third term will give him a chance to see it through.
Gallegos is at once the county’s most championed and disparaged political figure. From what’s said of him, he’s either courageously aligned the DA’s Office with community values or turned it into a smoking crater.
Both attitudes will be on full show in the upcoming DA primary election.
The political split is reflective of a larger, cultural one and DA elections of the recent past have inflamed it. But Gallegos said it’s ultimately been constructive and re-election will allow him to “finish work that I started years ago.” He described what he views as the fundamental improvements that have happened since he was elected in 2003.
They include modernizing the office’s filing and information systems; new DUI, drug enforcement and cultural awareness training programs for police and investigators; improvements in the quality of investigations and initiating multiple fronts of community outreach, including tribal outreach.
Gallegos said a “vast change” has taken place and is ongoing. It’s been a famously turbulent process and Gallegos believes the office is better for it – and so is he. “It’s always wrong to say there’s nothing more to learn,” he said.
He’ll be facing at least two and probably three of his former prosecutors in the election and they’re already saying that the first thing Gallegos needs to learn is how to run the office. His critics say he’s caused an exodus of respected prosecutors, personally taken on high-profile felony cases at the expense of office management, and his relationships with police agencies are strained.
Gallegos has fired three attorneys and others chose to leave the office after he was elected. He isn’t apologetic. “Yes, we do have standards here and we have responsibilities to this community and to the office,” he said. “I was voted in to do a job and to turn this office around.”
It’s been said that the office is now staffed with young, inexperienced attorneys who aren’t well-managed or trained. Gallegos named eight prosecutors in the office who are “far from young and inexperienced,” and added, “We have a base level of young attorneys doing misdemeanor work that we’re training and will be replaced – that’s the way it’s always been and it’s the way it’s always going to be.”
Gallegos also named himself an experienced prosecutor but some say that’s part of the problem -- that he doesn’t have time to be what a DA should be: a department head.
But Gallegos believes that “first and foremost,” a DA’s job is to be a trial attorney. “You have to lead by example and be willing to try those tough cases, those big cases for the community,” he said. “The people of this community deserve to see me in court – I’m not an administrator, they didn’t elect me to be an administrator, they elected me to make sure this office runs and it runs well.”
Gallegos added that the office has “working, functional relationships” with all agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office and police departments. “There are times when individual chiefs and agencies are unhappy with me and sometimes that is mutual,” he said. “But by and large we know what our responsibility to this community is and we fulfill it.”
He added, “At the same time, the tail cannot wag the dog and I would say there was a perception of the tail wagging the dog.”
One of Gallegos’ signature messages is that application of law has to be based on it content, not biases. “One of the fundamental things I believe is that it has to rain on the rich and poor alike,” he said. “The DA’s office shouldn’t just pick on poor people – you know, we never get criticism when we pick on poor people, the mentally ill and homeless people.”
Marijuana growers were seen by some as being picked on before Gallegos was elected. His medical cultivation guidelines were eventually adopted by the Board of Supervisors but as the DA’s Office has changed, so have the times. Now there are complaints about the impacts of marijuana growing and a demand for doing something about them, especially in Arcata.
Has Gallegos’ marijuana prosecution approach changed? He says it’s “absolutely the same” and that he supports prosecuting marijuana cases when appropriate. But he added, “The first key is to remove the hyperbole – we will sit down with Arcata any day to address the issues but they have to be real issues. We cannot break the law, I’m not going to violate people’s civil liberties.”
Nor will he be pressured into seeking recourses that aren’t pragmatic, he said. His use of plea bargains, especially in some of the cases he’s personally prosecuted, is another target of criticism. One of the more controversial plea deals is the one accepted by Jason Whitmill, one of two men who caused the death of nine-year-old Nicole Quigley while drag racing on Route 299.
Whitmill was sentenced to 14 years, eight months in prison on a manslaughter charge, a punishment that members of Quigley’s family and others think is light. Gallegos had originally filed a second degree murder charge, which set a hard-nosed tone for the case and probably raised people’s expectations.
“It also raised Mr. Whitmill’s expectations,” said Gallegos. “And I didn’t charge it to get him to plead but it also let everyone know – ‘You do this and you may find yourself accused of murder.’ We put the community on notice.”
The downgrading of a vehicular manslaughter charge against Alan Bear, the man who drifted out of a State Route 299 travel lane and struck and killed bicyclist Gregory Jennings severely disappointed the bicyclists and trail advocates who are – or were – part of Gallegos’ support base. Asked about it, he said he made the right decision.
“I reduced it because the evidence changed,” Gallegos continued. “That guy got a year in jail – that was a big case for Humboldt County. When I got here, they said, ‘Paul , they never prosecute people who run over bicyclists.’ Guess what, no one will ever say that again – we sent someone to jail for a year for accidentally running over a bicyclist. That is a great thing, that is a big change for Humboldt County.”
Gallegos has had less time than it seems to establish his leadership. He’s been in office for seven years but the first four were steeped in turmoil and sidetracked by a recall election. He won a second term with a 53 percent majority and the division of opinion on him still runs strong and is probably as bitter as ever.
“I have shouldered the burden of change not only in this office but in this community,” Gallegos said. “I’ve been the meat in the grinder, so to speak … from the recall to the next election, which was a revisit of that whole past battle -- and we’re seeing it again.”