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State Bar Chief Trial Counsel Mike Nisperos Jr. resigned Tuesday, saying he wanted to be closer to his East Bay family after nearly four years in Los Angeles. But a couple of attorneys familiar with the State Bar say Nisperos’ departure was more the result of a failed power struggle with Executive Director Judy Johnson. “You don’t take on Judy Johnson,” one of the lawyers said. “She’s such a Bar insider — born and bred.” Said the other: “Mike exhibited some independent questioning that she didn’t like.” Johnson could not be reached Tuesday. Bar President John Van de Kamp deferred comment to Deputy Executive Director Robert Hawley. Asked last week if State Bar leaders had problems with Nisperos, Van de Kamp had declined to answer, saying it was a “personnel kind of thing.” As the chief prosecutor since March 2001, Nisperos has headed the State Bar’s discipline system, which makes up a vast portion of the organization’s annual budget. According to the two anonymous attorneys, Nisperos, who is based in Los Angeles, tried to exert greater control over his department’s budget a year ago, citing state Business & Professions Code §6079.5, which says the chief trial counsel should report to the Board of Governors’ admissions and discipline committee and not the executive director. He got nowhere, the lawyers said, and subsequently was criticized by Bar leaders for alleged inefficiency in his department’s work. The Bar recently opened Nisperos’ position up to new applicants, even though the B&P Code would have allowed Bar governors to reappoint him. Nisperos himself insists he was not shown the door but left purely for personal reasons. “Although it is tempting to seek another four-year term,” he said Tuesday, “I feel the Bay Area calling me back to my roots.” His mother lives in Oakland and his son Michael is a junior at UC-Berkeley. Nisperos also had family ties in Southern California. His daughter Marlo is a third-year law student at L.A.’s Loyola Law School, and his wife, Eleanor, is an administrative law judge for the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board in Pasadena. Nisperos, who will step down Jan. 3, said he chose to resign now to pave the way for his successor. “If I kept my name out there,” he said, “it might discourage qualified applicants.” As of Tuesday, there were 20 applicants for the trial counsel job. The Bar extended the deadline for applications from Dec. 31 to Jan. 19. Hawley, the deputy executive director — who often speaks on behalf of Johnson — said Tuesday that it was true Nisperos had complained about having to live within a tight budget, but he denied Nisperos had been pushed out. “The State Bar is a hotbed of innuendo and rumor,” he said, “and it’s unfortunate that people speak out without any knowledge of anything. “Has Mike complained in terms of struggling within the existing financial limits? You betcha,” Hawley said. “Every manager in the organization has said, ‘I can’t operate much longer in this economic environment.’ That’s not Judy’s fault.” He also said Nisperos has done “a fine job” and that the Bar has “benefited from his leadership.” Nisperos, who turns 55 today, came to the State Bar from Oakland, where he was manager of the Citizens’ Police Review Board. He previously had worked in private practice, immigration prosecution and with the U.S. Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Nisperos brought a unique perspective to the State Bar job in that he had been arrested in 1987 on cocaine charges. A high percentage of the cases handled by the chief trial counsel’s office involve attorneys with substance abuse problems. Nisperos entered a rehabilitation program after his arrest and was later reinstated to his job at the Immigration and Naturalization Service after filing suit in federal court. In 1991, he was named director of the Oakland mayor’s Office of Drugs and Crime, where he coordinated enforcement, prevention and education efforts. “He has faced the pit and understands the harm that can be caused by substance abuse,” then-State Bar President Palmer Madden said about Nisperos’ hiring. “But he’s also somebody who got himself out of the pit and has worked hard to build a successful career.” In a statement released Tuesday, the State Bar noted that Nisperos’ accomplishments include the development of the State Bar’s drug court and the successful prosecution of Beverly Hills’ Trevor Law Group, which the Bar said had made a fortune shaking down immigrant-owned businesses through frivolous suits. Recent figures show that the State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel is having a good year. As of Oct. 31, the office had filed 297 disciplinary notices with investigations into 613 matters. The total for last year was 298 charges filed, with 456 investigations. The backlog of cases as of Monday stood at 397, compared with 540 at the end of last year. The office anticipates the backlog to drop to about 350 by Dec. 31. Nisperos said he doesn’t have another job lined up, but has a list of positions he might consider. In the meantime, he wants to take some time off. “My wife,” he said, “reminds me we haven’t had a vacation in 14 years.”

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