Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego County District Attorney, is arguably the area's most powerful politician. Former U-T reporter Kelly Thornton talks about her five-part series on Dumanis that appeared this month on VoiceofSanDiego.org.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): When you think of who might be San Diego's most powerful politician, a number of well-known names probably come to mind, and many local politicians themselves would be eager to claim the title. But a series of articles recently published by voiceofsandiego.com (sic) propose a name you may not have thought of: San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. The series argues that Dumanis, who is running for re-election this year could very well be San Diego's most adept and influential politician but her rise to political power has not been without controversy. Kelly Thornton is the freelance reporter who wrote the five-part Voice of San Diego series on Bonnie Dumanis. Kelly, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.
KELLY THORNTON (Freelance Reporter): Thank you so much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Tell me how this series came about.
THORNTON: Well, I was kind of making my usual calls to a bunch of sources of mine that I’ve had for many years and somebody suggested it to me. And, frankly, I’ve spent most of my time covering federal courts and agencies, so I didn’t have a lot of expertise in that area but I thought that that would be a really interesting to look at considering she’s up for reelection and, of course, she doesn’t have an opponent, which I thought might not make it as interesting a story. But as I started to look into it, it – I intended to do just a one story profile and it morphed into this amazingly huge endeavor that took a couple of months and turned out to be a five-part series, which is unheard of in these days of cutbacks, etcetera. But I could’ve made it into a ten-part series, frankly.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Well, tell – Let me ask you, did you have any – going in, did you have any preconceived notions about Bonnie Dumanis?
THORNTON: Well, I – My notion about her, not knowing her very well, was I thought she seemed very warm and friendly, you know, when she came across on some of her interviews but I also used to work at the Union-Tribune and I had been in the newsroom and overheard some contentious debates between—I should call them debates—between some of our reporters and somebody on the other line at the DA’s office, so probably spokespersons or something, so I thought that there might be some – it might be tough to get in there and get time with her but she was very open and spent two hours, excuse me, three hours with me over two interviews.
CAVANAUGH: Did your opinion – any of your opinions change as you spoke with her?
THORNTON: Well, I really – You know, I had sort of an impression of her but I had never gotten to know her at all. And I found her to be very funny, very charming, and she gave me a hug at the end of the first interview. I found her to be a lot of fun to talk to and I found her very accessible. I had a funny experience, though. I – As I got into this and I was doing more and more reporting, I had done an initial public records request to her office asking for statistics and as I reported more, I needed more information and so I was quite a pest to their office and I – every time I asked for more, I felt kind of embarrassed about it. And at one point, you know, the statistics were hard to reconcile because, long story, but during the Pfingst era and the Dumanis era, there were – they were kept differently and so I was trying to reconcile these numbers and I kept asking and asking, and at one point Bonnie got on the phone in a conference call – or, excuse me, a speaker phone and she lost her temper with me and she said, well, if you don’t believe the statistics then you don’t believe them. And she recovered pretty quickly. You know, she didn’t really want to get all over my case but I, you know, I can’t blame her because I was a pest. But I got a little glimpse, just a slight glimpse, of what some of these people were telling me about Bonnie.
CAVANAUGH: A self-admitted pest.
CAVANAUGH: That’s funny. So tell me, you argue in your piece, at least you state, that Bonnie Dumanis, the San Diego County District Attorney, is San Diego’s most powerful politician. How do you support that claim?
THORNTON: Well, it’s – frankly, it wasn’t my premise to begin with and as I talked to a lot of political people, people who are really close to her and people who are not close to her, who are just observers in politics, consultants, and people in law enforcement, it kind of – it just occurred to everybody that she has become that for a few reasons. One, she is elected countywide, unlike some of her competition for that title, and so she might have a bigger stage than them. And she also has a lot of clout statewide. She’s built up her power. She’s been on a lot of commissions. She’s been on – She’s been head of the Deputy District Attorneys Associations and part of them on a national and state level. She is a kingmaker when it comes to judges, and her endorsement is gold and everyone seeks her endorsement, and she really – most of her candidates win. And maybe most importantly, she was sort of a protégé of Bill Kolender and Kolender, of course, was the most charming of politicians and wasn’t really – isn’t really considered a politician by the voters in the true sense because he’s a law enforcement official, even though he is quite a politician, or was. And so Bonnie is kind of in the same boat, and he brought her up and basically lifted her into this level of the elite politicians in San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with reporter Kelly Thornton about her five-part series on Voice of San Diego, called “The Rise of Dumanis,” about San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. And tell us – tell me a little bit more about the Dumanis relationship with former Sheriff Bill Kolender because you spent a lot of the initial part of the series talking about it. In fact, they were so close as colleagues that some people referred to the two of them as Dumander.
THORNTON: Yeah. That’s a funny term. Bonnie herself laughed at that. She said she thought that was funny. But, you know, the funny part of this is, is that Kolender had endorsed Bonnie’s predecessor, Paul Pfingst, in the election. And I asked her, how did that relationship evolve if he had opposed you? And she said, well, one of the first things that she did when she came into office was to reach out to Kolender and try to create that relationship. She said they’d both come into office in kind of contentious circumstances and she needed advice on how to smooth things over within the office. And then they just found out they had a lot of things in common. I mean, they’re both Jewish, they both are, you know, they would argue over who was the top law enforcement official in the county, and they started having breakfast together and they were very like-minded Republicans. And so I think this was kind of a natural relationship for them and they decided to kind of combine forces and they would jointly endorse candidates. And I led off that first part with an anecdote about Bonnie’s father. She – it was – Actually, when I interviewed her, it was close to the anniversary of his death, maybe the second anniversary, as I recall, and so she was a little emotional about that and she recalled this time when Kolender came to the hospital to visit her father and I guess he had this signature move where he wore these little badge lapels – lapel badges from the sheriff’s department and he had like a bag full of them at home, and he would go and take one off of his lapel and hand it to a supporter or someone who he wanted to cheer up, and so he did that to Bonnie’s dad and I guess he – her dad was just beaming over it and it was a really touching moment, especially for Bonnie watching this. And Kolender had whispered—Bonnie overheard it—don’t worry, you know, I’ll take care of Bonnie.
THORNTON: And so that was really a special moment.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you mentioned in several ways, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is – sort of breaks some stereotypes. Remind us of the ways in which she does. She is a, first of all, a Republican who – whose home state is the heavily blue state of Massachusetts.
THORNTON: Yeah, well, as we just saw yesterday, maybe it’s not as blue as…
CAVANAUGH: Not as blue as we thought.
THORNTON: …we had thought. But, yeah, this was kind of a funny conversation we had when I actually said, look, Bonnie, you’ve got all these labels and it seems like you just don’t really fit into any of these stereotypes with these labels. You know, Jewish, from Massachusetts, Republican, lesbian. And she laughed and laughed and she said, you know, my parents, who are, you know, diehard Democrats from Massachusetts, were more upset when I came out as a Republican than when I came out as a lesbian. And we all, we got a good laugh over that one. But she has a good sense of humor about it, and she did say, you know, I – I’m just an independent thinker. I don’t – nobody can put me in a box. I look at each situation as it is and, you know, I’m law and order. But she also – it’s kind of funny because Bonnie has so many different ways of looking at things. On one hand, she’s very in tune with some social aspects of her job. She has this program, SB-618, this legislation that is a prisoner reform program, which you wouldn’t think that a DA would focus so much on that but…
CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk about some of the positive and perhaps less than positive facts about her tenure as district attorney. Her office is apparently thriving under her administration. In fact, tell us how the DA’s budget has fared in this tough economy.
THORNTON: Well, since she took office, her budget has gone up and the number is like 65 to 68%, I don’t remember precisely but – So she has really managed to steer the office through these rougher times, although it is catching up now. It doesn’t look like her budget’s going to be going up much in this year and next year it’s projected to be about just a $2 million increase or maybe a little under that. But if you look at the other agencies, they’re all struggling. In fact, I’m probably going to be doing a story on the interesting discrepancies between her budget and that of the Public Defenders office, which the Public Defenders office is just a fraction, like maybe one-third of her budget.
CAVANAUGH: And why is that?
THORNTON: Well, you know, there’s – It depends on who you talk to but generally politicians, if you’re looking at it from the cynical standpoint, politicians want Bonnie’s endorsement or the District Attorney’s law and order type of endorsement so they’re hyperfunding law enforcement. And not just for that reason but it’s just kind of the way it’s been done. It’s done that way all over the state. It’s like about fifty-three cents spent – A study found that fifty-three cents was spent for public defense versus a dollar for every, you know, if I can make sense of that.
THORNTON: For every fifty-three cents spent on the public defenders then a dollar was spent for prosecution.
CAVANAUGH: Now, she’s gotten some criticism from some quarters on some ways that she’s spending that money. A gym at the Hall of Justice, I think…
CAVANAUGH: …and also there’s, I believe, the idea that she has a larger personal staff than perhaps some of her predecessors.
THORNTON: Right, well, really the gym was kind of just an aside. I mean, that was used with forfeiture money. That wasn’t directly out of their budget. But the biggest criticism I was hearing about Bonnie in terms of her staffing is that she has a really top-heavy management. And basically she’s got five public affairs people versus Paul Pfingst had two. She even has someone who is referred to as an office historian. She has a lobbyist that Paul Pfingst never had. But on the other hand, she would say, look, this office needed to be reorganized, we need more management, we have a lot of employees and the lobbyist is bringing in grants that we didn’t have before.
CAVANAUGH: Speaking of former District Attorney Paul Pfingst, you just alluded to, a couple of minutes ago, that you were trying to reconcile numbers of cases tried and so forth with Dumanis’ office and the time that Pfingst was in office. What did you come up with with – because records were kept in a different way, is that right?
THORNTON: Well, the way it was under Paul Pfingst, he implemented this new computerized system to track all these statistics because he wanted to have performance measures. And it was just kind of getting underway when he left office. But it wasn’t – Not everybody reported all their stats the same way and so under Bonnie, she made a point of appointing someone to follow through on that and make it work. And so now it’s – they’re being reported more. And also the difficulty in comparing the stats is that different administrations report differently and calculate things like conviction rates very differently.
CAVANAUGH: However, there’s no doubt that under Paul Pfingst the more – the district attorney’s office tried more cases.
THORNTON: Most definitely. By all the measures, statistically there were more cases tried under Pfingst, felony cases. Now, you know, it’s – depends on who you talk to whether that’s a good or bad thing. But, you know, people in the Pfingst administration would say, look, we were the workhorses, we worked a lot harder, we were – The critics of Bonnie would say, look, she’s still filing the same amount of cases but she’s going to trial a lot less, she’s selling – she’s settling the cases in order to keep her conviction rate higher.
CAVANAUGH: When we talk about Bonnie Dumanis, there’s one case, one recent case that comes to mind and that is about Frank White. Tell us about that case and why it’s controversial.
THORNTON: Well, Frank White, a San Diego police officer, was off duty and, you know, I didn’t cover this case, I just know kind of the basics of it, that he was involved in an off-duty road rage incident and the – there was a woman in another car who had her young son with her and he shot the child and the mother, not knowing—I don’t know the details—but apparently not knowing that there was a child in the car. But he was in fear for his life, etcetera, and he – Bonnie decided to charge him with a crime and basically this really upset all the police unions, and so she’s created this rift by doing that. He was acquitted and there was some controversy within her own office whether she should’ve pursued that case because, you know, most juries are pretty favorable toward police officers.
CAVANAUGH: In fact, she was told that the case was not winnable, is that correct?
THORNTON: She was advised by at least one of her supervisors that it was – the case was dead on arrival, that it wasn’t something they should pursue, they didn’t have the evidence to convince a jury to convict.
CAVANAUGH: And what happened to that person who said that?
THORNTON: Well, this is a deputy district attorney, Richard Monroy, he was the head of the Special Operations Unit, a very prestigious position. He was demoted to a non-supervisor role a few months later. Now Bonnie said that that’s just a typical transfer that she does periodically and – but from other folks, they see it as punative.
CAVANAUGH: There’s other claims of there’s some sort of retribution going on with the district attorney’s office and that has to do with the trial judge of this Cynthia Sommers (sic) case. She was the woman who was tried and convicted of the arsenic poisoning of her Marine husband but that conviction was overturned and she was subsequently released because new lab evidence showed that there was no arsenic in the tissues and, therefore, that no murder could be proven. Now the trial judge on that case has been boycotted now by the DA’s office. Is there any linkage?
THORNTON: Well, it depends who you talk to. Bonnie is not giving an explanation nor is she required to. She has instructed her DAs to basically use a preemptory challenge on the judge for some sort of bias but she doesn’t have to spell out the reason so everybody’s been speculating about it and that story was actually broken by my colleague, my ex-colleague at the Union-Tribune, Greg Moran, who probably has a lot more deep and dirty secrets on that one. But it certainly has upset a lot of lawyers, including many of her own lawyers who feel that that’s just a – she’s throwing her political weight around and just because she didn’t like the way a judge behaved, she’s going to show him and – and he basically could be out in the cold if something doesn’t change. I mean, he may end up going back to civil or something, doing something different because he can’t get any new cases.
CAVANAUGH: What does it mean when a judge is boycotted?
THORNTON: In the sense of day by day what they’re doing?
CAVANAUGH: Yes, umm-hmm.
THORNTON: I think he has a lot of leftover cases that were already underway that he’s still working on. That means basically he doesn’t get assigned any new cases.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. Now our district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, announced she wasn’t going to make any endorsements any longer after 2007 but, indeed, she has been making endorsements and that’s caused a little bit of a riff among her deputy district attorneys. Tell us about that.
THORNTON: Well, she made this announcement in 2007 at a press conference, which I did not attend. But I learned that she basically said she wanted to – it was in conjunction with an announcement about a new Public Integrity Unit and she wanted to protect the integrity of her office by saying she was no longer going to make endorsements, yet she did make exceptions. She said she was going to make exceptions for public safety related races, and that would include basically judges. But since then, she’s really been criticized a lot because her political activity really hasn’t slowed down at all. She has endorsed, of course, numerous judges, as she said she would, but she’s also endorsed in races that you kind of scratch your head and think, hmm, I don’t think that’s really public safety related. But she said, for instance, she endorsed Mayor Jerry Sanders in his reelection bid because he makes public safety related decisions. Well, you could probably say that about most politicians.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m thinking most recently of the case of her endorsement of Bill Gore as sheriff, San Diego County Sheriff, and the fact that perhaps there – she doesn’t want anybody else to endorse anybody else in her office.
THORNTON: Right, well, that was kind of an interesting one. I led off one of my stories with this anecdote and that is that, you know, she’s a big supporter of Bill Gore, who’s running for sheriff, and so she has certainly endorsed him and is – appears at a lot of functions for him, and fundraising, etcetera. And she basically asked – She appeared at a meeting of the Deputy District Attorneys Association and, you know, depending on who you talk to, either she asked them to endorse Gore or she just asked them to remain neutral. And this kind of bothered some members of the association who felt that she shouldn’t be meddling in what they do politically and her – she told them you should remain neutral because that our office has a lot of dealings with the sheriff’s office, and that just was a bit hypocritical to them because Bonnie herself has endorsed. And I have a series, a Q&A, that I had with her on tape, and I just basically transcribed it in my story to show her responses. And I think that hit a nerve with a lot of folks in the law enforcement arena.
CAVANAUGH: Well, and you also mentioned the Public Integrity Unit that was announced in 2007 and that – where is that unit now? What’s happened to it?
THORNTON: Well, it still exists sort of. It’s, as Bonnie says, she said there are a lot of cases that we just don’t know about that are going on. Now the critics would look at it and say it just fizzled because of a botched prosecution of a Chula Vista City Councilman, Steve Casteneda, and that case was kind of a long, long involved case. I won’t get into it. But he was acquitted as I recall, acquitted on several counts and then Bonnie decided not to retry on others. And after that, the prosecutor was transferred to some other position and things never really got off the ground for that unit at least on a public – from a public perspective.
CAVANAUGH: And I read that Bonnie Dumanis basically says that we’re not doing a lot of prosecutions because we’re – the very existence of the unit is making politicians behave.
THORNTON: That’s what she says. And, you know, people on the inside thought that was kind of funny, some people, but on the other hand, maybe she’s right, who knows? Can’t tell from this vantage point.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit, because, you know, we’re talking a little bit about – some things we’ve been talking about are kind of inside baseball. On the larger scale, how do local lawyers evaluate the performance of the DA’s office?
THORNTON: Well, I think, you know, a lot of lawyers would look at it from their own perspective and how they’ve been treated. And I tell you, it ran the gamut from every lawyer I talked to. And, certainly, the lawyer for Cynthia Sommers (sic) had some very, very negative things to say about Bonnie Dumanis. But then you have other lawyers who say, well, at least she has an open door policy, particularly on death penalty matters, and she may not be persuaded in all situations but she opens her door to people, to defense lawyers to come in and make their case. So it just kind of depends who you talk to.
CAVANAUGH: That death penalty, you go into it in your article about how really seriously Bonnie Dumanis seems to be taking the decision to either go for a death penalty or not. And, in fact, you talk about her going – taking a flight back east to actually explain her decision to the family of a victim.
THORNTON: Well, to her credit, she went while she was on vacation back there…
THORNTON: …so she didn’t do it directly just to go see them. But she does give a voice to victims’ families and she, you know, she said she kind of has to clear her schedule after she has a meeting with a victim’s family because it’s pretty rough on her to have to talk to them. And so she’s said that she takes that to heart a lot and this decision is – she doesn’t go lightly into that – those decisions. And one of the defense attorneys I talked to said she actually reversed herself on seeking the death penalty because of the package they put together to explain the mitigating circumstances.
CAVANAUGH: And those mitigating circumstances had to do with the background of the person who was accused of the crime.
THORNTON: Exactly. Yeah, he apparently – I don’t – I didn’t cover this case so I don’t know all the details but this defendant had had some brain related injuries that just changed him tremendously and contributed to him committing the crime apparently.
CAVANAUGH: Kelly, after having done this series, on balance, would you say that having a powerful, influential district attorney is a good thing for San Diego?
THORNTON: Oh, gosh, I don’t know if I’m the person to make that assessment. Well, certainly Bonnie has said, look, you know, it’s a good thing that I am powerful, that I have the influence that I have, because I can go out and get more money, I can influence legislation, etcetera. So, you know, Bonnie is being a politician, she is a politician. It just depends on how you look at it if you think that she should or shouldn’t wield the power the way she does. She’s been harshly criticized, though. I was very surprised by talking to a lot of these people. Harshly criticized for being very political in all of her decisions that she makes. Particularly there was the fundraiser for Francine Busby, the congressional candidate, in which she kind of came right down the middle. There was a confrontation between a sheriff’s deputy and – who was responding to a noise complaint, and the party host. And so Bonnie just kind of took it down the middle. She didn’t side with anybody, and I think she was criticized by some people I talked to within her office for not taking a stand on something.
CAVANAUGH: So we’re talking about politics and how powerful she is, what’s on the horizon politically for Bonnie Dumanis?
THORNTON: Well, part of the big reason I wanted to talk to her is because of all the rumors that she’s going to run for mayor or Attorney General, State Attorney General. So I did directly ask her and she kind of danced around the mayor issue and I never really got a direct answer. But she – I did say would you pledge to complete your third term then, and she did not pledge that. She said she would not leave the office if she felt that it was, and I’m paraphrasing, in some kind of disarray, she didn’t feel it was in capable hands. And she said never say never. So it kind of – I’ve been told she’s been sort of exploring the idea as would-be politicians do, you know, looking for support, lining it up. But she’d have a crowded field to go against but she certainly would have a big name recognition and a lot of support so she could be a contender for sure.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that must – That’ll be your next series.
CAVANAUGH: Kelly Thornton, thank you so much.
THORNTON: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Kelly Thornton’s five-part special report for Voice of San Diego is called “The Rise of Dumanis.” Coming up, we talk with the father of