By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County’s new district attorney, Jill Ravitch, barely has time to catch her breath these days, let alone decorate her sparse inner sanctum on the second floor of the Hall of Justice in Santa Rosa.
The bare yellow walls and cluttered desk speak to a hectic first month for the county’s top law enforcement officer, who from the start was faced with enormous budget hurdles, staff tumult and a public relations debacle.
“I didn’t realize the complexity of this job until I got here,” Ravitch said between sips from a can of Diet Coke. “This is a very demanding job.”
Since taking over Jan. 3 from Stephan Passalacqua, whom she ousted in the November election, Ravitch has been plunged into one difficult task after another.
The challenges have all but overshadowed her vision of imparting some of her more than two decades of criminal courtroom work on an office she believes is somewhat lacking in experience.
Without mentioning her predecessor, she said she’s inherited a stable of young lawyers who need to be teamed up with more seasoned mentors to get the training necessary to bring the office to a higher level.
As promised, she said most managers have begun prosecuting cases in addition to their other duties, but whether she’ll make a courtroom appearance remains to been seen. The budget and other matters are more pressing right now, she said.
“I do miss it,” said Ravitch, whose reputation as a fierce litigator earned her the nickname “Ravitch the Savage” from one public defender-turned-Superior-Court-judge.
Her first move was a management shakeup in which she demoted one of Passalacqua’s top executives. She then brought in her own choice, prosecutor and political confidant Bud McMahon, who had been relegated to juvenile court under Passalacqua. McMahon, she was to soon learn, had a role in the controversial handling of a Cloverdale hit-and-run case.
And Ravitch had been on the job less than a week when county administrators told her to develop plans to slash 25 percent from her office’s budget, which was stretched in Passalacqua’s final days with the hiring of five lawyers.
Ravitch began the unpleasant task of forming a layoff list for the 43 attorneys handling about 25,000 cases a year.
“I was asked to come up with $3.7 million in cuts, which is 25 percent of this office,” Ravitch said. “That’s a pretty big challenge on your eighth day in office.”
One of the recent hires was let go this month. Ravitch announced the next week that she was hiring another campaign supporter, Deputy Public Defender Ann Gallagher White, a former prosecutor, who will lead the environmental crimes unit.
Although the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors declined to publicly criticize the move, some members say it smacks of cronyism and exacerbates the budget crisis. White is being allowed to transfer years of seniority, which gives her job security while pushing existing prosecutors closer to the layoff list.
Ravitch said the county hiring freeze prohibited her from picking an outside candidate, who would have been first fired in any staff cut.
Later this year, Ravitch is expected to decide if she will eliminate an executive position held by one of Passalacqua’s other former assistant district attorneys, Christine Cook, and whether she will name someone different to be her second-in-command.
“It’s not unusual for an incoming manager to want to staff her office with people she believes are best for the job,” Ravitch said.
Brian Staebell, a deputy district attorney for 14 years, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about his new boss, whom he said “can be blunt but has great integrity.”
“I’m hoping people can take the leap of faith a little bit,” Staebell said.
Even some former Passalacqua supporters are optimistic.
Civil attorney and former Santa Rosa Democratic congressman Doug Bosco said so far his friends in the District Attorney’s Office are happy.
“There’s always been a certain amount of infighting and backbiting in that office,” Bosco said. “But I do know that people are pleasantly surprised Jill is taking a moderate approach and getting people together as a team. She hasn’t cleaned house.”
In the midst of budget and employee concerns, Ravitch was blindsided by the courtroom controversy involving juvenile prosecutors, including McMahon.
The family of an 83-year-old Cloverdale man struck down by a teenage driver Dec. 27 complained that the District Attorney’s Office settled the case within days without first checking on their relative’s condition and without the benefit of a completed police report.
A day before Miguel Sanchez died Dec. 31. — and five days before Ravitch took office — Mitch Carlson, 17, of Cloverdale was allowed to admit to a charge of felony hit-and-run. The Sanchez family was not notified of the proceedings as required under Marsy’s Law.
Ravitch conceded a “miscommunication” and launched an investigation of the rapidly settled case, in which Passalacqua’s brother, criminal defense attorney Joe Passalacqua, represented Carlson. She vowed to report anything “inappropriate or unethical” but since has said there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Stephan Passalacqua, who left office Feb. 3, denied knowledge of the case and said he and his brother had a long-established communications “firewall” to prevent such conflicts.
Amid calls for more details, Ravitch on Jan. 21 handed the case off to an independent prosecutor overseen by the state Attorney General’s Office. On Feb. 9, the prosecutor filed an additional manslaughter charge against Carlson, who admitted the offense and was sentenced to a maximum of three years’ probation in an open court hearing.
In the aftermath, Ravitch created policies requiring victim notification and is conducting an internal review of the case’s handling by McMahon and prosecutor Jaime Ballard. So far, she said she’s found nothing to shake her confidence in the two.
Ravitch, in her interview, for the first time identified the two prosecutors. For weeks she refused to give their names or disclose details of the case.
McMahon, whom she said has “a long and remarkable” prosecutorial career, is now heading the early felony case resolution court, handling asset forfeiture and acting as chief liaison to law enforcement.
“We’re dealing with thousands of cases each year,” Ravitch said. “There are bound to be some we don’t do as well.”
Despite the bright spotlight, Ravitch handled the controversy appropriately, said Eric Koenigshofer, an attorney and former county supervisor.
“It was a situation in which some politicians might take advantage and get into grandstanding,” Koenigshofer said. “Jill’s approach was stellar. She didn’t get ahead of the facts.”
Meanwhile, Ravitch said she’s focusing on the budget, reorganizing the office and endless meetings with staff, defense lawyers and members of the public.
“Everywhere I go someone is giving me a binder,” Ravitch said. “I realize the job requires more of me than I expected.”
When she gets a free moment, she said, she’ll look to her office décor. For now, framed degrees and posters are propped against a wall.
Among them is a quote from the Bible, “Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue,” that Ravitch has carried with her throughout her career. It also hangs in the office of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“That’s what it’s all about for me,” Ravitch said.