EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally published on May 16, 2014, at www.tahoedailytribune.com. However, due to unforeseen technical circumstances, the original version was deleted. We are re-publishing it on June 2 due to its importance related to the June 3 primary election.
Unseating an incumbent in any race is far from a slam-dunk.
David Alkire, who is challenging two-term District Attorney Cliff Newell in the June 3 primary, has been hammering away at what he says is Newell’s lack of competence and lack of integrity.
But it is far from a given that voters will care about Newell’s baggage, which includes ties to the defendants in a hard-money loan fraud case that led The Sacramento Bee to call for his resignation in 2011, and an office that was so dysfunctional that two separate attempts were made by staff to demand the reassignment or termination of his second-in-command.
And some in the community have fired back, charging that Alkire’s negative campaigning has turned nasty and will cost him much-needed votes.
“I’m not running a negative campaign,” Alkire said. “If describing accurately the incumbent’s performance (is perceived as negative), that says a lot about the quality of his job performance. I’ve done nothing that sinks to the level of negative campaigning. There are not false or inaccurate or unfair criticisms.”
According to Alkire, he is running on his reputation for personal integrity and professionalism, saying, “That is what distinguishes me from the incumbent.”
Alkire, a former prosecutor in Los Angeles and Monterey counties, said he has handled more than 100 jury trials as prosecutor, including death penalty murder. Newell, he said, has never handled a homicide, and has not prosecuted a case since he became District Attorney.
“We can’t afford the luxury of a DA who is not pulling his share of the load,” Alkire said.
Newell has said that his role as District Attorney is more managerial than prosecutorial, by necessity — and that his track record speaks for itself.
“I think I’ve done a darn good job for the last eight years,” he said. “Under my administration in the office, we have a steadily decreasing crime rate. My office provides more services than it ever has, and we’re doing more trials than we’ve ever done.
“My staff is hitting on all eight cylinders — and contrary to some statements, my staff are generally pretty darn happy,” Newell added.
MORALE ISSUES IN OFFICE
Alkire has charged that the District Attorney’s office has suffered from low morale and high turnover since Newell took office.
He pointed to two separate letters signed by deputies and other staff members — the first requested Assistant District Attorney Anna Ferguson be removed from managerial duties, and the second demanded her termination.
Several former deputies said Newell took no action in either instance.
Deputy District Attorney Bill Cornell spoke to The Union about issues in the DA’s office on April 27, a week before he resigned after being on suspension for more than six months.
Cornell said he was hired in 2006 to serve as the deputy in Truckee, and initially, Newell was open to his suggestions.
But that ended about two years into Newell’s first term, after Ferguson was hired, Cornell said.
Increasing tensions in the office led to the two letters regarding Ferguson’s management style, according to Cornell.
“Cliff had no ability or inclination to make her back off,” he said, adding that Newell ignored the responsibilities of running the office.
“Cliff doesn’t listen — Anna doesn’t even hear.”
The first letter was presented in 2010, Cornell said.
“Cliff was very offended we questioned his management,” he said.
The second letter, which Cornell said was given to Newell in June 2012, called Ferguson a “cancer in the office.”
The deputy district attorney who took the lead in presenting the letter, Greg Weston, was placed on administrative leave for an incident allegedly involving Ferguson, and subsequently terminated in what Cornell called a retaliatory act.
Newell does not deny receiving those letters, but characterizes the discontent as being due to a necessary culture change.
“I run the office, somebody’s not going to run it for me,” he said.
“I’m responsible for what’s going on, and Anna did exactly what I asked her to do. There needed to be a culture change in the office. I ensured nobody was retired at their desk, no one was taking advantage of our leave policy. My attorneys are going to work a solid work week. When you’re changing the culture, you’re going to step on some toes.”
Newell said it was true that a combined 100 years-plus of experience walked out the door of the DA’s office in recent years, but said that was necessary.
“People retired of their own volition,” he said. “The bottom line is no one is going to be retired at their desks and be a prosecutor in my office.”
TROUBLE IN TRUCKEE
Cornell said the lack of response to the second letter demanding Ferguson be fired was “the final straw” for him.
He said he challenged Newell over that issue and others in the office, leading to his being put on administrative leave in late September 2013.
Cornell remained suspended at full pay until he accepted a severance package on May 2.
“There was no basis for suspending him for this long, no basis for firing him,” Alkire said of Cornell’s seven-month absence from work. “If he had done something to be fired, that should have happened months ago. It was (due to) personal motives and fears that he might go public with his description of maladministration in office. He was put on full pay, sent home and ordered not to talk to anybody.”
Having no assigned deputy in Truckee caused a significant issue in the courtroom there, Alkire said.
And transcripts from one recent case hearing seemed to bear that out, with Superior Court Judge Robert Tamietti taking Newell to task for the lack of an assigned deputy district attorney.
The case against a man named Anthony Torres stemmed from a gang fight, according to court documents. Torres initially was charged in August 2013 with assault with a deadly weapon, battery causing serious bodily injury, and street terrorism. After a preliminary hearing, Torres was held to answer only on the battery charge.
On Feb. 11, Tamietti personally ordered Newell to be present to explain why the case was being dismissed; according to Newell, there was no way of proving beyond a reasonable doubt who the offender was.
On questioning from Tamietti, Newell said Truckee Police handled the case and there was no additional investigation done by his office.
Tamietti responded by saying he was “increasingly concerned ... about the impact on this community about the absence of an assigned DA.”
According to Tamietti, the Torres case was an example of a “slipshod” attitude of “‘Let’s get rid of this because it’s going to be hard to try,’ and that’s not a good reason to get rid of a case.”
Newell told Tamietti the lack of an assigned DA was a personnel matter, and that the case had been over-charged to begin with.
“Had this crime happened in the Safeway parking lot of Grass Valley, it is my impression that a whole bunch more resources would have been thrown at this case,” Tamietti said. “I don’t like the spot I’m being put in here ... And I credit my disgust, in large part, to your office and its handling of this case.”
In an interview May 5, Newell insisted there was nothing wrong with the Truckee office, saying, “The last guy who was up there has resigned his position, and I’m filling the position, it’s that simple.”
Newell took exception to Tamietti’s perceptions regarding the Torres case and the effect of Cornell’s suspension.
“We had a staffing issue, I was constrained by budget issues, I had to rotate attorneys up there to cover the calendar for a while,” he said. “I’ve hired a part-time retired attorney up there, who’s keeping the office running like a clock. Those are the things that happen in any business. Truckee is running fine.”
Cornell said he remained concerned with the fact that Newell was not stabilizing or managing the office, but added in a follow-up call this week that “I want to get on with my life.”
TIES TO GOLD COUNTRY LENDERS
Alkire also has sought to continue to link his opponent to the Gold Country Lenders criminal case, currently set to go to trial in October.
In a Sacramento Bee series of articles published in 2011 that detailed the hard-money loan case and Newell’s ties to the lender, Newell is described in the very first paragraph as having his personal finances in disarray and his ability to do his job compromised.
The year-long investigation found Newell “inextricably linked” to Gold Country Lenders CEO Phil Lester — and reported that he received favorable treatment on his own loans from two hard money brokers, with Lester trying to help him avoid foreclosure and possible bankruptcy by raising money for a loan and misleading investors who contributed.
Lester made a $700,000 loan to Newell in 2007, although only about $260,000 of that loan ever was funded. In 2009, Lester modified the loan, dropping the interest rate from 11 percent to 7 percent. Later that same year, Newell deeded over portions of his land to pay off the remainder of his original loan.
Newell has consistently maintained his business affiliation with Gold Country Lenders did not impede his ability to execute the duties of his office, calling The Bee’s work “yellow journalism.”
Back in 2011, victims alleged that Newell ignored their complaints. Newell has said, most recently in a candidates forum, that he recused himself as soon as he became aware of a potential conflict of interest.
But, in fact, the original complaining victims had bypassed the District Attorney’s office entirely because they were aware he had a loan with Gold Country Lenders.
Midge Fowler initially spoke to a Grass Valley Police investigator in late May 2009, but called the state Attorney General’s office less than a week later, she said.
In a meeting with Grass Valley Police Officer Colin Nelson and the Attorney General’s office, Fowler said she was not comfortable in having Newell involved. She was told that the state would handle the investigation, but they would have to keep Newell “in the loop.”
That account meshes with a statement in 2012 by then-Capt. Rex Marks in which he recalled the case being forwarded to the state due to the size and complexity.
Marks told The Union at the time that a meeting was called to notify Newell; Marks did not recall Newell bringing up a potential conflict of interest during that initial discussion, and Nelson could not recall when it came up, although it was disclosed at some point.
Liz Kellar is city editor at The Union, a sister newspaper of the Sierra Sun’s located in Grass Valley and Nevada City.