San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis lags in fundraising among legal professionals

San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis lags in fundraising among legal professionals

Deputy district attorney giving varied

The union representing San Diego's deputy district attorneys voted to endorse Dumanis for re-election. Credit: courtesy image.

The union representing San Diego’s deputy district attorneys voted to endorse Dumanis for re-election. Credit: courtesy image.

One set of lawyers may fairly be said to know Bonnie Dumanis the best: San Diego County’s deputy district attorneys.

These are the lawyers who work in the district attorney’s office, trying criminal cases on behalf of the County.

And while the union that represents deputy district attorneys voted to endorse Dumanis back in February, a review of contributions in the race makes clear that not every deputy agreed with their union’s stand.

inewsource identified eight individuals who were employed as deputy district attorneys at the time they made contributions in the race.

Three deputies contributed a combined $795 to Brewer’s campaign.

Two deputies contributed a combined $800 to Wyatt’s campaign.

Three deputies contributed a combined $1,250 to Dumanis’ campaign but Dumanis refunded those contributions in line with her campaign’s policy to reject contributions from those working for her.

“Bonnie did not want her employees to feel pressured to give her money,” said Tierney, explaining the policy.

One of those deputies is Michael Benke, who worked at the DA’s office on a one-year contract that ended in September of last year.

“I find her personally to be very impressive,” said Benke, who contributed $1,050 to Dumanis’ campaign — all of which was refunded.

Benke, who worked on environmental enforcement in the office’s Economic Crimes Unit, cites Dumanis’ frequent visits to different branch offices and departments as proof of her commitment to her employees.

“She looks out for her DDAs. That’s her background. She was one,” Benke said. “But she also looks out for the support staff,” noting that she gives paralegals and other employees opportunities to work in different departments.

“She wants people to be happy in their careers,” said Benke, who now works at the state attorney general’s San Diego office. “I really appreciated that.”

The vote by the deputies’ union was not without controversy.

Some pro-Brewer deputy district attorneys complained about emails from co-workers encouraging them to support Dumanis during the union’s endorsement vote.

Pro-Dumanis deputies dismissed those concerns, with Deputy District Attorney Patrick Espinoza telling Voice of San Diego “The claim that a voter was ‘strong armed’ by the email is simply sour grapes from Brewer partisans because Brewer lost the vote.”

San Diego judges, sheriff among Dumanis contributors

Two sitting San Diego County Superior Court judges contributed to Dumanis' campaign. Credit: courtesy image.

Two sitting San Diego County Superior Court judges contributed to Dumanis’ campaign. Credit: courtesy image.

Several elected officials also donated to Dumanis’ campaign.

Among them were two sitting San Diego County Superior Court judges.

Marshall Hockett, currently assigned to criminal court, contributed $250 last February.

Michael Groch, currently assigned to family court, contributed $400 last June.

Geoffrey Hazard, a professor emeritus of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, described such donations as rare.

“It would be very unusual for judges to make such a contribution,” said Hazard, an expert on professional legal ethics.

As superior court judges, it’s likely that Groch or Hockett would preside over cases Dumanis’ office prosecutes.

“That would be, I think, inappropriate,” Hazard said. “I don’t think it’s illegal but I do think it’s inconsistent with the idea that a judge should conduct himself so [that] there’s no question about his neutrality.”

Through a court spokeswoman, both Groch and Hockett declined to comment on their contributions.

When asked whether Dumanis felt it was appropriate for sitting superior court judges to make donations in a competitive district attorney’s race, Tierney, the campaign’s spokeswoman, defended the propriety of the donations.

“That’s the law. They’re legal contributions,” Tierney said. “They’re allowed to give.”

Also making a contribution was San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore.

Gore endorsed Dumanis in March, making a $700 contribution that same month.

Gore declined an interview request but provided the following statement through a department spokeswoman:

“I endorsed the candidacy of Bonnie Dumanis for District Attorney because she has done a wonderful job and is a great law enforcement partner. I frequently donate my money to candidates I support.”

Hazard, the law professor, said he doesn’t see the same problems in Gore’s contribution that he does in those of Groch and Hockett.

“An officer doesn’t require the same degree of impartiality and he may be saying that his estimate on a professional basis is the incumbent is superior for the job,” Hazard said.

Another high-profile elected official who contributed to Dumanis is Ernest J. Dronenburg, San Diego County’s Assessor, Recorder and County Clerk.

Dronenburg, who donated $250 to Dumanis in October, made waves last July when he petitioned the California Supreme Court to ban county clerks statewide from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to overturn a lower court’s ruling that struck down Proposition 8. Though Dronenburg later withdrew his petition, the maneuver drew the ire of gay rights activists, who have since sought his resignation.

Dumanis, who is married to a woman, endorsed Dronenburg for re-election last April, three months before the clerk filed his petition. Dumanis has said that she voiced her disappointment with the move directly to Dronenburg, telling KPBS that “As a member of the LGBT community, I continue to be a strong supporter of equality and same-sex marriage.”

Dronenburg did not respond to a request for comment on his contribution to Dumanis left with a spokeswoman at his office.

Also contributing to Dumanis’ campaign was San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. Goldsmith, whom Dumanis endorsed in his 2008 run against then-city attorney Mike Aguirre, donated $700 in April of last year.

Goldsmith did not respond to a request for comment left with his office.

Next page: Accusations of hypocrisy on donations

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About Joe Yerardi:

Joe Yerardi
Joe Yerardi is a freelance data journalist for inewsource, where he worked between 2013 and 2016 as an investigative reporter and data specialist. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email joe.yerardi@gmail.com.