ALM Properties, Inc.
Page printed from: The Recorder
Select 'Print' in your browser menu to print this document.
DA With Checkered Past Accused of Corruption by Bar ProsecutorsThe discipline trial of Del Norte DA Jon Alexander, a former meth addict, will feature testimony from three judges.
2012-10-12 04:23:43 PM
SACRAMENTO Jon Alexander is scheduled to go on trial in a State Bar court this coming week to determine if he should be punished for professional misconduct or pitied for an incredible string of misfortune and maligning.
State Bar prosecutors have charged Alexander, the district attorney of tiny Del Norte County on California's north coast, with seven counts of wrongdoing ranging from corruption to incompetence. They paint a picture of a reckless lawyer with a history of playing fast and loose with ethical canons.
Alexander and his lawyers, however, describe a big-hearted man under attack from small-town enemies and prosecutors run amok.
"I have a client who I think is being railroaded for no reason," said Alexander's attorney, Nossaman partner Kurt Melchior. "I think he's absolutely innocent of anything that would warrant any kind of discipline upon his license."
The trial is likely to raise novel questions about whether an elected prosecutor accused of wrongdoing is better judged by a bar court or local voters. No one at the State Bar could remember the last time prosecutors pursued charges against a sitting, elected district attorney, acting communications director Laura Ernde said.
The proceedings in San Francisco will also feature testimony from at least three jurists. Deputy trial counsel Linda Yen and senior trial counsel Donald Steedman said in their pretrial statement that they plan to call Del Norte County Superior Court Judge William Follett and his recently retired colleague, Judge Robert Weir. Melchior said Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice William Bedsworth will testify on behalf of Alexander, his former clerk.
The trial starts at a time when the bar is under scrutiny for its disciplinary practices. The state Supreme Court this year has returned 42 discipline cases to the bar with cryptic instructions to re-evaluate stipulated punishments "in light of the applicable attorney discipline standards." Bar leaders have interpreted the order as a formal hint that some discipline may have been too lenient.
"Ever since that happened the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel has taken an extremely hard line on the [disciplining] standards," said Susan Margolis, a veteran of representing lawyers facing bar prosecutions. "Basically the office's position is, we're not going to deviate from the standards. If the court wants to, fine. ... That's something I'm sure [Alexander] is going to have to contend with if culpability is found in this case."
With a professional resume pocked with suspensions and bar-ordered discipline some of it tied to his well-publicized past use of methamphetamine Alexander is likely facing disbarment and the loss of his career if the charges are upheld. And it's clear the DA and his counsel are not going down without a big fight.
This past week, Alexander filed a 131-page lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court seeking unspecified damages from the bar and four named individuals for a host of claims related to the bar charges, including violation of his civil rights, defamation and negligence. A judge denied his request for a temporary restraining order seeking a halt on his bar trial.
The details surrounding Alexander's current professional troubles read like legal pulp fiction:
Prosecutors say that while Alexander was serving as a Del Norte County public defender in 2009 he made a $14,000 personal loan to an assistant chief probation officer. That officer was assigned to three cases handled by Alexander, two while he was a public defender and another after he was elected district attorney in 2010.
"By then failing to disclose, while a public defender and then later as district attorney for Del Norte County, the existence of that outstanding loan to the court and opposing counsel in actual or potential cases to which the probation officer was or could be assigned, [Alexander] committed an act of corruption," bar prosecutors charged.
The probation officer wrote an October 2011 letter to the bar in defense of the DA, saying that she, her husband and Alexander are long-time friends who regularly help each other out. The friendship has never influenced her probation reports, Linda Sanford wrote.
"Jon has a key to my house and my husband keeps a stash of Stilton cheese in the refrigerator for him ... The loan that Jon made to me was private and between two good friends. Whatever allegations have been made about the timing or the intention of that loan are more a reflection on the accusers than Jon or I."
Alexander is also accused of improperly dropping charges against a kidnapping suspect who was represented by attorney George Mavris. Mavris was Alexander's attorney in a separate State Bar disciplinary proceeding. And he had loaned Alexander $7,000 for a hair transplant.
"The emails between [Alexander] and Mavris are flippant and nonsubstantive, suggesting that the dismissal was made based on factors other than merits of the ... case," the bar complaint reads. "Given his gross conflicts of interest, [Alexander] should not have involved himself personally in the decision to dismiss the ... case."
In his response, Alexander said Mavris was not actively representing him in the State Bar case when they discussed dropping the kidnapping matter. And he had already repaid Mavris for the loan, he said.
The bar has also charged the district attorney with talking to a represented defendant about a pending case without her lawyer's approval. Alexander said the defendant "barged" into his office and began rattling off information about her case, which was eventually turned over to the attorney general's office for prosecution. Alexander said the defendant's lawyer had previously authorized him to speak with her.
"Trial counsel's use of the moral turpitude section is not always indicative of substantive charges," said legal ethics expert Richard Zitrin, a partner with Carlson, Calladine & Peterson who teaches at UC-Hastings law school. "On the other hand, a DA talking to a represented defendant is a major, major impropriety."
Ernde said bar representatives declined to comment on the suit or pending trial. Alexander did not respond to messages from The Recorder; Melchior said he asked the prosecutor not to talk to the media about his case.
Alexander brings to the trial a personal story made for the movie scripts. He was an aspiring Orange County lawyer with an appellate court clerkship under his belt and a knack for winning over a jury. Then he got hooked on meth. According to an essay penned by mentor and friend Bedsworth of the Fourth District, a drugged-out Alexander was living in the crawl space of a Laguna Beach home when a drug deal gone bad left him in the hospital with a broken neck.
He turned his life around, moving to Del Norte County to help his ailing mother. He went to work in the DA's office and then returned to criminal defense as a public defender. He championed 12-step recovery programs and volunteered in the community. In 2010, he ran for the top prosecutor's spot on a "death to meth" platform. He won.
Alexander is still serving on State Bar-ordered probation for a number of charges stemming from as far back as 2002. He was accused of failing to adequately represent a client, practicing law without an active-status license and writing an improper ex parte message to a sentencing judge. Melchior said the charges were largely based on inaccurate information or misunderstandings, but Alexander didn't have the resources or energy to fight them. So he agreed to participate in the bar's alternative discipline program and serve the probation.
Melchior said his client believes the bar is still out to "get" him. In an article on Alexander's current troubles earlier this year, The Sacramento Bee published an undated email from State Bar senior trial counsel Cydney Batchelor to an unknown recipient that said, "I do not believe for a second that Alexander should be a DA (because) I think his mental abilities continue to be adversely affected by his long-time meth use even though he appears to be sober now." Batchelor was the counsel assigned to Alexander's previous discipline case.
Batchelor has submitted a declaration to the bar court saying that she did not leak the email, which she said was sent internally.
Melchior contends that such comments are proof of a discriminatory prosecution.
"If [a DA] shows signs of mental incompetence then it's a political situation as to what should be done about it, not a disciplinary one," he said.
Melchior described Alexander as a polarizing figure, one who has attracted many supporters as well as some ardent critics in a county of 29,000 residents. He is also, Melchior said, someone who runs into more than his share of bad luck. His trial, for instance, was delayed for a month while he recovered from injuries sustained in a dunk-tank accident.
In their filings, prosecutors suggest that Melchior's explanations for his actions are just more excuses.
"There is no small-town practitioner exception to the ethical rules governing attorney conduct," trial counsel wrote in their pretrial statement, "nor is small town status generally recognized as a mitigating factor."
Counsel have estimated that Alexander's trial will last nine days.