Get local, investigative reporting in your inbox.
by Amita Sharma | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource
As Bonnie Dumanis campaigns for a fourth term as district attorney, a prosecutor in her office and some former elected officials in the South Bay are raising questions about whether she blurred the boundary between politics and law enforcement in a high-profile case six years ago.
At issue is the prosecution of former Chula Vista Councilman Steve Castaneda, who was accused in 2008 of lying to a grand jury. A jury acquitted him on most charges and hung on others.
At the time, the case perplexed people in the media and legal circles who suspected political motives. KPBS recently learned of a phone call Dumanis made in late 2005 that some now say could lend credence to those suspicions.
”I received a call from Bonnie in my office, asking me, encouraging me to support one of the candidates who was an employee of hers in her office and a friend,” said former Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla, who needed to fill a vacant City Council seat at the time.
The employee was Dumanis aide Jesse Navarro. Padilla said he told Dumanis that Navarro wouldn’t do because he needed to replace outgoing Councilwoman Patty Davis with another female Democrat.
“She was disappointed,” Padilla said. “She felt strongly about Jesse.”
Critics have long accused Dumanis of improperly wading into politics by endorsing candidates. But they argue the 2005 phone call to Padilla crossed a new line. It melded politics and prosecutor, undercutting her credibility and raising questions about her motives in the events that followed.
Just weeks after the call, Dumanis’ office opened an investigation into Padilla and the rest of the Chula Vista City Council for allegedly not attending redevelopment corporation meetings but collecting pay for them. No charges were filed.
The office did charge Padilla’s aide Jason Moore in 2006 with lying to a grand jury about spying on his boss’s political opponent at a fundraising event. In a deal with prosecutors, Moore pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
That same year, Dumanis launched a probe into whether then-Councilman Castaneda had received special favors from a developer. A grand jury later indicted Castaneda for perjury.
Dumanis declined a request for an interview for this story. Her spokesman said the office cannot discuss past or present investigations.
Former federal prosecutor Jason Forge, who is not aligned with any of the three candidates in the district attorney’s race, said the series of inquiries following Dumanis’ call to Padilla creates a perception problem.
“If you have a prosecutor personally requesting something that is refused and soon thereafter there is a criminal investigation that would effectively open up the opportunity that the prosecutor had requested, the appearance of impropriety is that the prosecutor is using his or her office to obtain this benefit,” Forge said.
The chief prosecutor in all of those investigations — Deputy District Attorney Patrick O’Toole — also declined an interview for this story.
But he provided a written statement, saying he was unaware of Dumanis’ call to Padilla until early 2008, but if he had known about it he would have insisted the office recuse itself from prosecuting Castaneda.
O’Toole wrote that he first learned of the call in a letter from the Chula Vista Better Government Association, which claimed Dumanis abused her power by trying to influence the Chula Vista council appointment process, among other allegations. O’Toole said he tried to discuss his concerns with Dumanis’ top staff member, Assistant District Attorney Jesse Rodriguez, but “was interrupted and told just to do my job,” O’Toole wrote.
Rodriguez also declined to be interviewed for this story.
O’Toole said at that point he still doubted Dumanis had called Padilla to get her own employee appointed to the vacant Chula Vista council seat. He said he believed that if the call had been made, the office would have told him because of the obvious conflict of interest.
O’Toole said he got confirmation of that call around the time of the Castaneda trial in April 2008. Padilla was a witness in the case.
“Steve Padilla informed me that Bonnie Dumanis had contacted him and requested that he appoint Jesse Navarro to the vacant Chula Vista City Council Position,” O’Toole wrote. “I believe that Steve Padilla also offered that he thought the Castaneda prosecution was ‘politically motivated,’ which I thought was strange because Steve Padilla was saying something sympathetic to Steve Castaneda when previously he and Steve Castaneda had each been highly and publicly critical of the other during the previous mayoral primary race.”
O’Toole is supporting former federal prosecutor Bob Brewer in his bid to unseat Dumanis. O’Toole and Brewer worked together in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.
O’Toole said had he known about the call, at the very least he would have recommended that Castaneda’s lawyer, Marc Carlos, be told of the conflict of interest. But O’Toole did not address in his written statement why he himself didn’t tell Carlos about the call once Padilla confirmed it. He declined to answer that question, saying he would not go beyond what he had put in his statement already.
Carlos first learned of Dumanis’ 2005 call from KPBS recently.
“If she was trying to do something to get a political favorite in a position of power at the expense of my client, it clearly shows a vexatious prosecution,” Carlos said. “It’s illegal for one. And it’s unethical. It’s certainly something I needed to know.”
Former federal prosecutor Forge agreed. He said at a minimum, the defense should have been informed of Dumanis’ call to Padilla.
“That way the defense can make their own assessment of whether they think this is a significant conflict,” Forge said. “The defendant can raise the issue with a judge. And then that third party — the judge — can make a determination about whether or not the fairness of the criminal proceeding is affected by this conflict.”
Former Councilman Castaneda said he had heard scuttlebutt of Dumanis’ call to Padilla while he was being investigated in 2006. But Castaneda said he never raised it as an issue because he didn’t think he could prove the call took place. He said Padilla’s recent confirmation of the call cements his belief that political considerations played a role in his prosecution. Castaneda said it also explains why the District Attorney’s Office insisted he resign as a part of a plea deal.
“It is interesting that on the one hand she’s asking that a staff member be appointed, I’m indicted,” Castaneda said. “I’m offered a bargain which is rescinded within 24 hours, before I even have an opportunity to say yes or no. These things are circumstantial. But they all lead to the same supposition — there’s something more here than meets the eye.”
Beyond disclosing information about the call to the defense in the Castaneda case, there was precedent for recusal within the district attorney’s Chula Vista investigations.
When the District Attorney’s Office asked to question Chula Vista City Councilwoman Patty Chavez in its probe of the redevelopment corporation, her attorney, Colin Murray, balked.
Chavez was in the middle of a re-election race and one of her opponents was Dumanis aide Jesse Navarro.
When Murray learned of Navarro’s connection to the district attorney, he asked that Dumanis recuse herself from the case.
“Why were these subpoenas being issued, including one for my client, when somebody within Bonnie Dumanis’ kitchen cabinet was running for my client’s seat,” Murray asked. “I thought it was improper.”
The District Attorney’s Office granted the request.