Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Gallegos recall effort underway [Arcata Eye]

Gallegos recall effort underway

By Daniel Mintz, Eye Staff

March 24, 2004

A campaign to recall recently-elected District Attorney Paul Gallegos is in its embryonic stages, but is quickly mounting as the county's progressive activists rally just as hard to bolster the D.A.'s legal moves against Pacific Lumber Company.

Gallegos' filing of a fraud lawsuit against Pacific Lumber (PL) has triggered a battle of public opinion for and against the suit and its opposing sides. Rumblings of a recall effort began almost as soon as the lawsuit was filed, and Arcata resident Robin Arkley, former owner of Blue Lake Forest Products and a locally well-known political motivator, has announced that a campaign to remove Gallegos has begun and is quickly attracting masses of determined supporters.

Soon after the suit was filed in late February, Arkley offered $5,000 to anyone interested in starting a recall campaign. “I have advanced the money and the recall is underway," he said. “We have a terrific amount of support and I can't believe how fervent the response has been."

Take it back from the hippies'

Arkley said the effort will be helmed by “a very, very good campaign manager" but didn't want to divulge the name yet. He did say that Tom Herman, a former PL forester now practicing law with the Eureka-based Barnum and Herman firm, will be the campaign's legal advisor. Herman was out of town and not available for comment.

The first tangible signs of the recall were evident last weekend, when volunteers began a voter registration drive at a logging conference at Eureka's Redwood Acres Fairground. And those who work for and favor PL are eager to vote and do anything else they can to oust Gallegos, said Arkley, who is certain that recall petition drives will be successful.

“Paul's probably done us a favor," Arkley continued. “We're going to take the county back, and we're going to take it back from the hippies."

He said the lawsuit is bunk, and that's why it has provoked people. “We're finally saying, shit, we've just had it, we're just not going to put up with it anymore and we do intend to take this county back – and that includes all those whackos at HSU [Humboldt State University]."

Gallegos has said the lawsuit has “taken on a life of its own" and it has inflamed the division of opinion on PL that has fermented here for years. The word “outrage" isn't an overstatement in describing reaction to the PL lawsuit, Arkley said. He's sure that the recall campaign will finally magnetize a political force that has been mute until now.

“There is a great, silent, unregistered majority of men and women who work and educate their children, and they have thought that it's futile to vote, but they now know that it's not," said Arkley. “And that's how we're going to do this. We are going to do it, it's for real."

Arkley added that animosity against PL has been tolerated, but now, people “are just sick and tired of it." He portrayed ongoing direct action forest protests as a particularly odious phenomenon, comparing the persistence of tree-sitters to “dogshit on a waffle- sole shoe."

Arkley said he will hire MTC, Inc., an Arcata-based advertising agency that's promoted many high-profile political campaigns, including those for former Humboldt D.A. Terry Farmer (who Gallegos defeated last March), County Supervisor Bonnie Neely, Eureka Councilman Chris Kerrigan, Eureka Mayor Peter LaVallee and the Southern Humboldt Healthcare District's successful parcel tax measure.

Rick Brazeau, MTC's owner, said his firm hasn't been contracted yet, but “if something evolves, I'm interested in being involved because this is an important issue – I, myself, will support it."

And raising money won't be a hard sell, Arkley asserted. “I can tell you this – we're spending a lot of money, because we've got lots of money."

Plugging for Paul

The other side of what has become a community-wide P.R. battle is also mobilizing. Groups have formed and are raising money to aid the lawsuit and sway public support for it.

Gallegos' key election campaign organizer, Richard Salzman, is the coordinator of the Alliance for Ethical Business, a new group that advocates for fair business practices and whose first project will be to hold forums presenting information on the lawsuit. The first is set for April 9 at the Arcata Community Center, and a Eureka forum will follow later that month.

Salzman said that effort, too, is drawing fast and substantial support, and the Alliance is planning a community outreach campaign that will probably involve print and television advertising.

“We feel that Maxxam [PL's parent company] has a powerful P.R. and media influence here," said Salzman, citing the county's daily newspaper and highest-rating TV station as examples. “We're trying to counter-balance that and make sure that the D.A. gets his voice out there he doesn't have a mechanism to do that, so our work is necessary."

Salzman isn't surprised that a recall effort is blossoming, but he thinks it amounts to an attempt to derail justice. And that, he added, demands a response. “This is not a popularity contest, but nine weeks into [Gallegos'] job, Arkley's already threatened to remove Paul from office just because he's making allegations about one of his friends – and just because a company is liked by many people doesn't mean that they're above the law."

The cost of a recall election to the county is a questionable expense, Salzman continued. He estimated that the county will pay $100,000 to send sample ballots to voters. And he predicted that it will fail to accomplish anything because “Paul will win by an even greater margin than he did last November (when Gallegos captured 52 percent of the vote to Farmer's 48 percent).

Southern Humboldt activist Jared Rossman has opened a fundraising account the Citizens Fund for Equal Justice at the Community Credit Union in Garberville, and he said that over $5,000 in donations has been deposited in it. Rossman is researching whether the funds can be given to the D.A.'s Office directly, but he said if that's not legally viable, the money might be used to hire a private law firm to file a “parallel lawsuit."

If that can't be done or isn't feasible, Rossman continued, the money will be returned to donors. Another option is to use it for “ publicity to counter-balance the onslaught of misinformation PL is putting out."

Rossman thinks the recall drive “is very sad, because [Gallegos] has barely hit the ground and people are so tired of the same old business' of the past D.A. – what do we want, a D.A. who's in the deep pockets of folks with money or a D.A. who is independent? I don't think Humboldt County will be fooled."

The need for public interfacing has motivated Gallegos himself. On March 18, he made a presentation on the suit to the county's Democratic Central Committee, which passed a resolution that praises Gallegos' work and “encourages the Board of Supervisors to support the financial needs of his office."

The legal fight

The embattled lawsuit alleges that PL submitted false information on the effects of logging in unstable areas, and then “suppressed" corrected data to facilitate the approvals that led to the 1999 Headwaters Agreement.

The suit argues that PL's “deception" influenced state environmental officials to approve the cutting of an additional 100,000 trees in unstable areas over a 10-year span (to 2010).

An initial public showdown on the lawsuit erupted at the March 11 Board of Supervisors meeting, where throngs of PL employees, subcontractors and supporters lobbied against Gallegos' attempt to enlist the law firm of famed trial attorney Joseph Cotchett. That move requires approval from supervisors.

Some of them were clearly annoyed by the request, but all five expressed doubts, and the contract request failed. A letter from the state Department of Fish and Game refuting the suit's claims was cited by supervisors as a warning flag.

Legal argumentation will focus on how the environmental documents define unstable areas and whether PL's inaccurate study actually influenced approval of additional cutting in them.

Gallegos has alternately been portrayed as a hero and an idiot for filing the suit. It comes as confrontation between PL and tree-sitting activists in Freshwater reach a boiling point. “There hasn't been a week in office when I haven't had to deal with PL issues," Gallegos said wearily.ÂÂ

Some of the emotional reactions to the suit are influencing misperceptions, he continued. And the D.A. said he doesn't think PL's status as a high-volume employer should steer his office's moves.

“People seem to be saying that we either do, or should, have different rules based on wealth. But we have to stand firm on this, because otherwise, our laws will lack integrity and without integrity, we will have cynicism."

There is plenty of evidence to support his office's case, Gallegos added, and he emphasized that he has no regrets about filing the suit. “One the one hand, people complain that it will cost money, but on the other hand, we have PL asking for substantial assistance from law enforcement to pull tree-sitters out and now we're seeing a recall effort that will further divide this community but this office cannot, and will not, be intimidated."

Tim Stoen was picked by Gallegos for the long-vacant assistant D.A. position and is the suit's engineer and lead prosecutor. He will seek monetary damages ($250 million was initially cited) as well as suspension of logging.

He has said that PL is “scared" of facing the suit in court.

Jim Branham, PL's communications director, responds: “Believe me, we're not scared. We are outraged. We're outraged that Mr. Gallegos would file a suit with no merit, a suit that wastes taxpayers' money and doesn't even demonstrate a basic understanding of [environmental approvals]."

Branham said it's likely that Gallegos has put the county in a position of having to defend itself in a counter-suit. “I think it's important that the Board of Supervisors understands that the D.A. can't run around and sue people without a factual or legal basis for it, the county has a vulnerability here. We will consider all our legal options, and they could well include recovering our costs."

Asked about the recall effort, Branham said his company is “watching it with interest." He also said that that “new faces" are surfacing to support PL. “It's like nothing I've ever seen since working for this company," he continued.

The rules of recall

Election law mandates that petition drives for the D.A. recall can't start until April 7. If 15 percent or roughly 11,000 of the county's 74,000 registered voters sign them within a 160-day window, a recall election will be held.

There are two ballot periods, in June and in November. Recall supporters will have to work hard and efficiently to get a recall election on the November ballot.

The recall voting ballot will cite reasons why Gallegos should be removed from office and will also include his answer to those arguments. Votes will be cast for and against a recall, as well as for a candidate or candidates who would replace Gallegos. Arkley said his team will choose a replacement candidate soon.

Political observers have little doubt that the petition drive will succeed, as PL has almost 1,000 employees and draws strong support from the areas of the county where it has operations. Fortuna is one of them.

That city's City Council recently passed a resolution portraying the lawsuit as a waste of taxpayers' money and in a separate action, voted to research the viability of filing a complaint against the D.A.'s suit with the county's Grand Jury.

Fortuna Mayor Mel Berti is the longtime meat department manager at Hoby's Market in Scotia, a PL-owned town that is the company's center of operations and residential hub. He said that over the last five years, he's seen people in Scotia become increasingly uncertain about their future.

“To see what people go through mentally and physically over things like this is astounding," Berti said of the lawsuit. “All five of us on the [Fortuna] Council are standing strong, and the people of this county will stand strong, too. We've had enough of this, it's time to stand up and say, Whoa, we've had enough and we're going to fight."

Berti added that he's part of the recall campaign and will “work with Mr. Arkley and do everything I can ... we are seeing a sleeping giant wake up."

From the lawsuit's outset, Gallegos said he expected political waves to roll against him. Saying he “loves Democracy," the D.A. accepts the likelihood of a recall election as an aspect of it.

“It will be a test, and it will determine what this community is all about," he continued. “There are good people here, and they deserve the best government, not one that only represents the rich and powerful."