Saturday, February 28, 2004

Humboldt D.A. fights to keep job [San Francisco Chronicle]

Humboldt D.A. fights to keep job [San Francisco Chronicle]

Lumber firm funds recall campaign after being sued

by Greg Lucas, Sacramento Bureau Chief

February 28, 2004

Eureka -- On the wall of District Attorney Paul Gallegos' fourth-floor office at the Humboldt County courthouse is a shadow box containing a hatchet, a pair of pliers and a Yankee screwdriver.

The tableau was assembled by the man who hung signs for Gallegos in his upset 2002 win to become the county's top prosecutor.

"I keep it here to remind me that hard work gets the job done,'' said the youthful-looking Gallegos.

There's plenty of hard work ahead for the 41-year-old former defense attorney before Tuesday's election in which Humboldt's 77,000 registered voters will decide whether to throw him out after a little over a year in his first elected office.

Bankrolling the effort to recall Gallegos is Pacific Lumber, whose contributions represent more than 90 percent of the money Gallegos' opponents have spent against him.

The company's nearly $230,000 in contributions -- and Gallegos' efforts to keep pace -- have made the recall the most expensive campaign in Humboldt County history.

The timber company says its only concern is the district attorney's supposed coddling of criminals.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there that's kept going by the Gallegos campaign,'' said Erin Dunn, a Pacific Lumber spokeswoman. "This is a safety issue, a personal safety issue. There's time after time after time his office has botched cases.''

Despite its claim not to be orchestrating the recall, Pacific Lumber helped hire a consultant affiliated with its Sacramento lobbying firm to manage the final weeks of the recall effort the company is largely financing.

Using office space provided by Pacific Lumber, the consultant has mapped out an aggressive campaign featuring crime victims groups, peace officers and television ads to buttress the claim Gallegos is a wimp on crime.

Gallegos insists the company's real motivation is to punish him for suing Pacific Lumber, the county's second-largest private employer, for providing false information to the state about the impact of its logging on creek ecosystems.

"The recall costs less than attorneys' fees,'' Gallegos said. "Either way, they're not going to pull any punches.''

The power struggle reflects the schism within Humboldt County itself as its old natural-resources-based economy -- where fishing and timber were king -- is eclipsed by newer, more service-oriented industries.

Those divisions are mirrored in the three candidates who want Gallegos' job, should he be recalled.

One is an 18-year veteran deputy in Gallegos' office. Another -- who echoes the criticisms of Pacific Lumber -- is a disgruntled former deputy. The third is a local lawyer who champions Gallegos.

A recall so bitter that school officials keep an eye on his 7-year-old daughter was not something Paul Gallegos imagined he would find in Eureka when he and his wife, Joni, left Los Angeles in 1994 to search for "a beautiful place to live where we would want to raise children."

Not knowing a soul, they hung their shingle in Eureka and built a successful practice as defense lawyers. They also built a family that now includes three kids, ages 22 months to 7 years old.

In 2002, Gallegos ran for district attorney. "Justice for All'' was his slogan.

"Government needs to represent and treat everyone equal,'' said Gallegos in an interview. "It's an issue in this community and it has been for a while -- the perception that not everyone here is treated equally.''

His populist promises of change helped him beat a 20-year incumbent by 52 percent to 48 percent.

Trouble started when Gallegos kept his promise.

First, Gallegos was criticized for expanding the county's limit on pot plants grown for medicinal purposes. He says his standards are more restrictive than his predecessor and mirror the rules in neighboring Del Norte and Sonoma counties.

Unions representing police officers and sheriff deputies grew tepid about Gallegos.

Then, just over one year ago, Gallegos lowered the boom on Pacific Lumber.

He accused the timber company of low-balling the amount of creekside landslides its logging caused in a habitat conservation plan governing tree- cutting on its 211,000 acres.

Pacific Lumber's buy off on the conservation plan was required before the state and federal government would spend $480 million to buy the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest and two other stands of old growth redwoods owned by the timber company.

Environmentalists, who had made similar claims for years, cheered the maverick district attorney.

The suit seeks the return of some of the money spent on Headwaters and penalties of as much as $75 million.

Pacific Lumber blasted the litigation as frivolous and baseless. Loggers protested the suit by surrounding the courthouse.

State agencies, like the Department of Fish and Game and the attorney general's office, declined to help Gallegos.

Even a request to hire Joe Cotchett, the nimble Burlingame personal injury lawyer, on a contingency basis was turned down by county supervisors.

Saying he wanted to take back the county from "environmentalists and hippies,'' a retired timber executive began a drive to recall Gallegos.

Last October, the effort stalled at 12,000 signatures.

Recall supporters then approached Pacific Lumber, and the company's parent, Maxxam Inc. of Houston, Texas, opened its checkbook.

Since then, Maxxam has spent nearly $230,000 -- $74,000 contributed Monday.

Gallegos refutes charges of weak prosecuting by noting he personally tried four cases last year and won all of them, on all counts.

In the first nine months of 2003, Gallegos charged 994 people with felonies -- a 14.8 percent increase over the 866 felony filings during his predecessor's last year in office.

At Gallegos' storefront campaign headquarters a few blocks from the courthouse, volunteers open envelopes containing checks ranging from $5 to $50.

Gallegos estimates his campaign, which has raised 80 cents for each of his opponents' dollars, has logged more than 700 contributions from county residents.

A lanky supporter in a porkpie hat, a braided beard and nose ring wants a couple of yard signs.

An artist's agent by trade, Gallegos' campaign manager, Richard Salzman, encourages the supporter to leave a donation.

Gallegos also makes the rounds of the candidate forum circuit.

At Humboldt State University, sighs, snickers and chuckles greet two of Gallegos' opponents, Gloria Albin-Sheets and Worth Dikeman.

Dikeman worked for 19 years under Gallegos' predecessor. He claims to have no position on the recall but argues that should it succeed, he is the most qualified to run the office.

"I'm bothered the district attorney's office has fallen into such disfavor. I'm the person to bring it back,'' Dikeman told the 200 mostly college-age people at the forum.

The Fortuna, Arcata and Eureka police associations back Dikeman, as does the county sheriffs association.

Albin-Sheets, who lost her prosecutor job because of budget cuts after Gallegos took office, echoes Pacific Lumber's insistence Gallegos is soft on crime.

"Mr. Gallegos is a defense attorney. He will always be a defense attorney, '' she said.

Both opposition candidates at the forum were periodically skewered by Steve Schectman, a local lawyer and gadfly, who denounces the recall and defends Gallegos' 13 months on the job.

"(The recall) has nothing to do with crime. It has to do with a corporation that wants to control this county,'' Schectman said.

After the candidates pummeled one another for an hour, Gallegos defended his record in a one-on-one interview.

Every decision made by his office is criticized by someone, he says. He cautions against singling out the handling of individual cases from out of the thousands his office processes.

In his personal office, next to the door, at eye level, is a photograph of Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president looks haunted but indomitable.

Gallegos compares Lincoln's recognition of the immorality of slavery to the issues Humboldt faces with Pacific Lumber.

The decline of timber breeds the same fear about the end of a way of life Southerners felt about the demise of slavery, Gallegos says.

"I am just the poster boy. I'm the focus of an issue not just this community but all of America is dealing with -- who is our definition of us? Is it some of us? Or is it all of us?"