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SACRAMENTO — Bill Lockyer captains a winning team.

At least that’s the opinion of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has poached seven top attorneys from the AG’s office since his election in November.

“It’s very tough,” said Manuel Medeiros, Lockyer’s state solicitor general. “They had a tremendous depth of experience — just generally, they’re some really very, very sharp people.”

The state’s top attorney is often raided for talent after a change in administrations, but Medeiros said Lockyer’s office experienced a “double whammy,” when top lawyers were hired away by Gray Davis in 1999, and then, just a few short years later, by the newly elected Schwarzenegger.

In an interview this week, Lockyer described the exodus of some of his top staff as a “huge loss” of “very talented people,” but said his longstanding policy on staff movement is to understand and support the career goals of the people he directs. “My view is that I like people who are ambitious and who want to do more. If they want bigger challenges, if they are the right opportunities, I support them.”

The seven attorneys hired by the governor since November include Peter Siggins, formerly one of two chief deputy attorney generals directly under Lockyer. Schwarzenegger hired Siggins as his legal affairs secretary almost immediately after the governor took office.

While Siggins is officially an independent, five of the seven are registered Republicans, which may at least partially explain the switches.

“I thought the election of Gov. Schwarzenegger was going to offer some real promises for reform and for the opportunity for getting things done,” said Siggins, a 15-year veteran of the AG’s office hailed by colleagues as a brilliant lawyer and a good manager. “I thought about the vacancy and thought it would be a real interesting job, so I applied to the transition team after I discussed it with Bill [Lockyer] to see if he was cool with it, and he was.”

Lockyer said losing lawyers is a given in an office that gets “a lot of exposure throughout state government and private business and lawyering.”

Still, Lockyer says his office remains strong.

“We have a deep bench,” said Lockyer, who in January promoted Richard Frank, a 27-year AG veteran, to Siggins’ former post. “There are a lot of skillful people here, so I’m delighted to have opportunities for other people to move.”

Nevertheless, the governor’s hiring of Siggins helped pave the way for an exodus of brainpower from Lockyer’s office.

Paul Dobson, a 23-year AG veteran who worked closely with Siggins, was hired on as the governor’s deputy legal affairs secretary less than two weeks after Siggins’ appointment was announced. David Verhey, a former deputy attorney general, joined the governor’s legal affairs team in January.

“Paul Dobson was someone I snagged right away,” said Siggins. “Verhey came with us.”

Since January, Schwarzenegger has also hired two members of Lockyer’s staff for the top spots at the state’s Department of the Inspector General, which is charged with monitoring the state’s correctional institutions. Mathew Cate, a supervising deputy attorney general charged with managing cases of political corruption, was hired in March as the state’s inspector general. Brett Morgan, a former deputy AG in the Division of Criminal Law, Appeals, Writs and Trials Section, is the state’s new deputy inspector general.

Two ranking women attorneys from Lockyer’s office joined the governor’s team in April. Evelyn Matteucci, a deputy AG and 10-year veteran of the office, was appointed general counsel and deputy secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency. Just this week the governor tapped Andrea Hoch, chief assistant AG for the Civil Law Division, to head up the Division of Workers’ Compensation.

At the time of Siggins’ hire, relations between Schwarzenegger and Lockyer were strained, especially when a spokesman for the governor confirmed that it was Siggins who told Schwarzenegger that Lockyer had violated attorney-client privilege by discussing allegations of sexual misconduct that had been made against the governor.

Siggins says he thinks the relationship between the governor and the attorney general is “OK,” and he says he’s been able to maintain strong ties with his old place of employment.

“I still have very good relations with the folks at the AG’s office, including Bill [Lockyer] and [Chief Deputy Attorney General] Steve Coony,” Siggins said.

Lockyer said Schwarzenegger’s poaching hasn’t tainted relations between the governor and the man who might run against him in 2008. “He always calls me and asks if it’s OK to continue to steal my staff, and of course, I have always said yes,” said Lockyer. “One of the things that happens with this cross-fertilization of staff is the relationships stay stronger.”

Though Siggins is listed as an independent and Matteucci is a Democrat, the other five are registered Republicans. But that alone probably doesn’t explain the appeal. Other politicos theorize that the unprecedented chance to work for a governor with both star power and a clean-sweep approach to government may have been too much of a lure to ignore.

“These guys are career state lawyers,” said David Puglia, who worked as a communications director for Dan Lungren, the former AG who is now running for Congress. “For them, this has got to be something of a pinnacle.”

Lungren, who promoted Siggins during his tenure as AG, said that the office is an excellent training ground for the governor’s office.

“The AG’s office has responsibility for almost everything in the governor’s purview,” said Lungren. “So if you, as a governor, are looking for people with experience dealing with the knotty issues of governing, you would look no further than the AG’s office.”

“Working for the governor is an extraordinarily rewarding experience,” observed Steven Merksamer, a former chief of staff for Gov. George Deukmejian who spent 10 years in the state attorney general’s office, “because basically, you’re working for the chief policymaker of the state of California.”

Not only is there prestige associated with the governor’s office, there’s also the chance for a judgeship somewhere down the line.

“The AG, the last time I checked, does not appoint judges, and the governor, the last time I checked, does,” said Merksamer.

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