District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Credit: KPBS

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.

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14 replies on “Call Raises New Questions About District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ Chula Vista Investigations”

  1. With Bonnie Dumanis it is always about politics; public safety and the prosecutor code of ethical conduct be damned. The fact that she would jeopardize a one million dollar investigation (some called it a “witch hunt”) by her own office in order to advance her “Public Affairs Officer,” a job created for her Assistant DA’s best buddy, is shocking. I’m almost glad the great Ed Miller, who always taught us to “do the right thing,” is no longer here to witness this further taint on the nationally recognized office he built. How much more of Bonnie Dumanis’ questionable and unethical conduct are people going to take?

  2. Wow! Here we go again. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has shown herself once more to represent the epitome of the famous maxim; “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A vote for Dumanis in June only serves to reaffirm her egotistical self-centered belief that there are no bounds to her power. Allowing Dumanis to remain in office signals no less than our approval of her insistence on dragging the once proud District Attorney’s Office through the gutters and waste heaps of abusive politics, blatantly and without remorse abusing the public trust. We need Robert Brewer to restore the professional and ethical standards of what is supposed to be a prosecutorial office and nothing more; a concept Ms. Dumanis has long since abandoned.

  3. This case was doomed from the start. A former federal attorney O’Toole, did not know the state system and spent a year trying to indicte with a grand jury and could only get perjury, which means the underlying case was no good. The a long trial resulted in a walk for Castanada. A major expenditure of taxpayer funds with zero result.

  4. The abuse of prosecutorial power is a serious violation of the public trust. As District Attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, has betrayed the voters who elected her to enforce the law, equally and fairly. She has been amassing a long list of failures and deceits. Her campaign contribution scandal, the failed and expensive prosecution of the penson board members, her politically motivated prosecution of school board members, her retaliation against members of her office who disagree with the way she does business and now this tawdry affair are but a few examples of what happens when a District Attorney puts politics ahead of the ethical performance of her duties.

  5. John: You wouldn’t “expect anything less” if you judged all lawyers by Bonnie Dumanis’s actions. That’s the point. Prosecutors have no place playing politics when they are supposed to be prosecuting criminals . That’s why it is so important that you vote for Robert Brewer for DA in June. The fact is there are some 300 honest and dedicated lawyers in the San Diego DA’s Office who work very hard to keep you safe, and take pride in doing their job in a professional and ethical manner without the politics. There are also any number of equally dedicated defense attorneys in the practice of criminal law who do the same. Those front-line prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are just as disturbed by Dumanis’s lack of ethics and abuse of office as you and I. Your vote can make a difference.

  6. One month before the upcoming DA election, a Brewer supporter SUDDENLY remembers a “shocking” phone call from six years ago? Nobody has done or said anything about it now? The DA assigned to case is now a Brewer supporter and he knew about the phone call but did nothing in all that time. This has all the credibility of an Us Magazine story about Lindsay Lohan. Those involved are a guy who directed a staffer to spy on his political opponent and another guy indicted of perjury. What an outstanding cast of characters Brewer is surrounding himself with. Sad to see KPBS fall for this claptrap. Also, Dumanis herself really should have dismissed this as garbage. This story illustrates how desperate Brewer is at his point in his “campaign.” Nobody knows who Bob Brewer is and the few that do know he’s a white collar criminal defense attorney that hasn’t prosecuted a case in three decades. He’s not a prosecutor and unqualified to be DA.

  7. Are you implying former Judge Dumanis is a prosecutor? She was on the bench longer than she was ever a “working deputy DA” (and how hard she actually worked has been questioned). Brewer only defended three criminal defendants in his career but as both a deputy DA and as an Asst. US Attorney, he tried dozens more cases to a jury than Dumanis ever did.

    And next time have enough guts to sign your own name to your letters.

  8. While I am entertained by all this feigned outrage over a 2005 phone call, I am on the edge of my seat wondering if Marty Martins will ever have the stones to outline the REAL source of his hurt feelings towards Dumanis. What happened man, did you invite her to your birthday party and she was a no-show despite RSVPing or something?

  9. Robert Phillips: Aren’t you that retired DDA who felt the need to bring politics into the DA’s office by using your legal update newsletter not as an educational tool, but instead as a blog to voice your own personal political opinions?

  10. Dear Mr/Ms. Hix:

    You’re totally mistaken. Mr. Phillips has written the Bible on Fourth Amendment law. He has an annual update of the guide as well. It’s an incredible resource — all 789 pages of it.

    I’m a prosecutor in LA. Our office issued copies of his Fourth Amendment guide to every new DDA for years (I think they still do. . . ). I use it all the time. He doesnt’ get paid to do it; rather, he offers it as a public service. Bobbi, can you point to your public service 789 page document that’s used by boots on the ground to beat back crime? Here’s his: file:///C:/Users/craig/Downloads/search_seizure_14th.pdf. The 789 page document speaks for itself.

    Craig.
    ps – you can find more on the Dumanis Debacle here: http://istandwithbobbrewer.blogspot.com/. Here’s how I stumbled into San Diego politics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lz2jJCar7LQ.

  11. Here’s the problem. If Padilla had installed Navarro — as Dumanis had insisted — would that make you question whether Padilla traded the position for a free pass on some criminal wrongdoing? On the other hand, when Padilla refused to go-along, doesn’t it raise questions about whether Dumanis had a genuine or politically nefarious motive for the investigations and prosecutions?

    Just imagine it this way. You are Joe The Plummer. I’m a Deputy District Attorney. I call you and say, my best friend needs a job, I want you to hire him as a plumber. Joe refuses. Two weeks later, I investigate Joe and then bring charges against one of Joe’s plumbing partners for work that wasn’t up to code. Might be that Joe actually committed a crime. Might also be that Joe received the brute force of the government because he didn’t go along with the wishes of an individual who sat at the helm of government power – here, the District Attorney. This is shocking behavior; it’s also wholly intolerable.

    Even worse? Dumanis — a former judge no less — hung Patrick O’Toole out to dry. She never bothered to mention she called seeking a position for an employee, and then wanted an investigation done after Castenada rebuffed her suggestion. After learning of the call, O’Toole went to a SDDA Chieftan and was “interrupted and told just to do [his] job.” This is another flagrant example of Bonnie Dumanis’s failed leadership (#dumanisFailedLeadership). This sentiment has no place in an office that requires the ultimate public trust. This brush-off was made by a person who decided whether in our most serious cases, we should seek Life Without Parole or Death; and, this is his attitude on a matter of public trust and importance. Wow.

    Even more troubling is this: People continue to pour out of the woodwork with tales of abuse. You can attack the first couple, but ultimately the chorus is so loud it non longer works. Indeed, I’ve started to receive communication from people who are unable to come forward. I will continue to speak out. I encourage others to stand up as well.

    You can find my blog on the issues surrounding the San Diego District Attorney’s Race here: http://istandwithbobbrewer.blogspot.com/. And a video, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lz2jJCar7LQ.

    Please vote Dumanis out of office; we deserve so much better.

    Cek.

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