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Ravitch off to bumpy start

Jill Ravitch

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.





17 Responses to “Ravitch off to bumpy start”

  1. Spectria says:

    I have confidence that Jill Ravitch will have proper review of both police procedure in initial contact with alleged lawbreakers and proper review of the investigation and material back-up before pursuing a case. I speak from experience after 5 years being chased by “Small Man’s Syndrome” DA SP and his uninformed DA’s who never reviewed actual possible evidence to see if it was valid, nor did they find out the true vindictive motivations of the “Victim’s” in this paper “NOT CRIME” were not witness to the claimed wrongdoing nor could they produce any evidence that their claims were valid.
    I pray that DA Ravitch will prosecute true crime and discard BS and use diversion and rehabilitation as an alternative to making wrongdoers into career criminals by sending them to State Prison for petty crime and minor drug offenses…

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  2. Friend at back door says:

    Evidently INTEGRITY does not include back door hiring when it involves friends. Darn civil service rules!!!! I guess the ends justify the means.

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 6

  3. BigDogatlPlay says:

    I voted for Jill Ravitch because I felt like the time was right for change. So far she has been thrown a number of curveballs and seems to be stepping up to the challenge.

    Exactly what she was elected to do.

    Besides, I didn’t hear much angst when the new sheriff jumped a lieutenant over a whole bunch of captains and command staff to be his number two in command.

    But then again, when a majority in this county voted for a president who is still actively blaming his predecessor two years on, why should I be surprised that when the shoe is on the other foot, Jill Ravitch is expected to act on a higher level by that same majority?

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  4. Ruben says:

    Mark, sorry. I must have been off my meds! I agree we need a better office.But I think maybe we can use what staff we have already and train them better.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  5. mark says:

    Ruben,

    Not sure where you are gathering your “facts” – but you are wrong. AGW is a seasoned attorney having over two decades of experience in both the DA’s Office, private practice and Public Defender’s Office. How much law experience do you have “Ruben”? Exactly my point. What we need are seasoned attorneys with a balance of experience. In case you are not aware your attorney friend from LA is from the same office that could not convict OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, Michael Jackson and many other “in the bucket” cases. I am not sure that you are up to speed on where the heavy hitters are.

    There are some great attorneys at the DA’s Office- and then there are some that have no experience and some dead wood that waste tax payers dollars.

    We need a new team, the best team, and experienced team. Jill is leading us in that direction. If you ask around – even with the local judges, you will find a common concern that the DA’s that worked for SP were not up to speed on the law and were making poor decisions (look at the Jon Mark Karr case!) There are many more such examples.

    AGW will do a great job and has the experience to handle her new assignment. We want more like her.

    If you are still grumbling it is likely u are a rookie in the system or a curb-side lawyer who wants to jump into a conversation that you know nothing about.

    I hear Empire is open for enrollment. How about you sign up – put ur way through law school and put in a few years of work before you offer your “opinions” which are completely off-base.

    Thank you Sir.

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  6. Yes, on the older, more experienced attorneys. No, on the Agent Moulder or Bones wanna-bes—– the Legally Blonds can go back to LA.

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  7. Ruben says:

    Well bumpy start you must have drunk a lot of the cool-aid.

    \Replacing a new inexperienced attorney with a seasoned professional with decades of experience (formerly a Deputy DA) is a SMART move. Why would we want an inexperienced attorney making important decisions on criminal cases? Well Anne Gallagher-white does NOT have decades of experience. She was NEVER a heavy lifter in the DAs office or the public defenders office. She worked part-time and handled only misdemeanors. She never prosecuted a murder case, gang case, rape case , attempted murder case … She handled misdemeanors. So she got rid of one prosecutor only to hire her inexperienced friend.

    \We need strong, ethical, loyal attorneys working for our DA. We need those who will follow and support Jill who has no political ties, free of any “good ol’ boy” repayments , and has integrity beyond reproach.\. Ok that is hypocritical to say the least. Again she got rid of an attorney to make room for her political supporter and best friend Ann Gallagher-white. The grand jury has got to look into this. This is cronyism and political favors at it’s worse and is affecting da employees just because they did not support Ravitch That sounds like good ol boy repayments to me. But your are also giving your good ol boy best friends tax payer funded jobs, benefits and perks. She is putting white in a Cush job where she gets to supervise herself and work 4 days a week. Giving her best friend a job also puts other people who have been in the office in the paths of lay-offs because of county rules about seniority.
    .
    \She was faced with left- over baggage\. You have got to be kidding. The attorneys in the office are top notch. The guy she fired had been a da in a large southern California county and was very experienced.

    Transparency? Yes she admits what she did only after she did it but she hides most of the true facts. A true politician not a leader. The da’s office is a place where people are afraid of their shadows for fear Ravitch will ax them next. If you think that inured justice. Good luck

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  8. NO BUMPY START! says:

    Not sure I would classify this as a BUMPY start. This is an office that was in complete demolition status when Jill took over. She didn’t hide anything. She just opened the door and let the Press Democrat into see what was going on, the problems she inherited when Stephan slid out the back door.

    She was faced with left- over baggage from a regime that had plagued the DA’s office and the legal community for the last eight years. The outgoing DA was like a dictator that REFUSED to cooperate with Jill and give her any opportunity to review what was going on within the office before she took over. While Mullins was professional and offered Passalacqua this courtesy, Passalacqua did everything he could to derail Jill’s success.

    She clearly asked the outgoing DA to stop hiring new attorneys and also publically denounced his action when he unilaterally decided to do so. We don’t need new young attorneys in the office. We need experienced DA’s. Replacing a new inexperienced attorney with a seasoned professional with decades of experience (formerly a Deputy DA) is a SMART move.

    Why would we want an inexperienced attorney making important decisions on criminal cases? If it is true that some of the DA’s closed their doors to protest (which I am not sure is true) then those are the ones that we need to clear from the office too. We need strong, ethical, loyal attorneys working for our DA. We need those who will follow and support Jill who has no political ties, free of any “good ol’ boy” repayments , and has integrity beyond reproach.

    We definitely have “dead wood” in the DA’s Office that enjoyed a “comfortable” career under the old regime. These employees will either see the “light” or see the “door” – it doesn’t matter. When Ravitch walks through that door each morning, we know that we have a leader that cares, has high integrity, and will ensure that our Deputy District Attorneys are working on cases, serving justice and making good legal choices based upon the LAW, not because they need to please their old boss and his friends or relatives in the legal community. We have a leader that won’t hide the truth from the community or the press. She says it how it is – and we will soon learn to appreciate an honest and open District Attorney working for our tax dollars!
    I will agree with the old DA on one issue… Jill is giving the Citizens of Sonoma County a “sweetheart deal”. He is right. She is sacrificing her time, heart and soul, and has placed her name in front of the whole world to critique- all in an effort to make Sonoma County a better place to live.

    Thank you Jill for the “sweetheart deal” and continue in your remarkable efforts in your new position! AMEN!

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  9. David Tierra says:

    @Paul Andersen,

    Of course she didn’t know what she was walking into, that sore loser Passalacqua shut her out. Real professional. That just goes to show you he never had the citizens of Sonoma County on his mind just his own selfish ambition. Even Bush let Obama in on what the real deal was.

    Thumb up 22 Thumb down 9

  10. The transparency and professionalism with which DA Jill Ravitch has already demonstrated in the first 2 months of office makes me think we’ve come of age as a community—-that we’re no longer a small town struggling to be bigger. We are a diverse, multi-cultural, up and coming, growing, cool small city—-and finally we have a top law enforcement lady who represents us. Goodbye Podunk, hello Santa Rosa!

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  11. Justice says:

    Cronyism! To say the least. Sending an attorney packing so she would have a vacancy so she could hire her best friend Ann Gallagher White is rotten. Ravitch has placed her personal needs to bring her good buddies into the office above the needs of her staff.

    Morale is at an all time low in the da’s office. The attorneys made a bold statement of shutting their doors in protest to ravitch’s firing/hiring tactics. This had never been done in the office before. Ravitch is off to more than a bumpy start. She’s off to a bad start and politicizing an office that does not need further polarization.

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  12. The only misstep for Jill was stepping in after 2 terms of wretched cronyism, deplorable puritanism and utterly bad management.

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  13. “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.”

    Well, that makes me feel real confident in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office!

    Someone tell the DA that sometimes it’s better not to broadcast your ignorance especially when replacing a two-term incumbent.

    How much longer will the DA continue to blame her missteps on the former DA?

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  14. coral says:

    I really like that Jill Ravitch has no reservations about displaying a quote from the bible. I am impressed that decorating her office is NOT her priority.

    I hope over-criminalizing and convictions at any cost and beyond common sense cease in Sonoma County.

    What a burden on taxpayers to have overzealous prosecutors pursue convictions based on theories designed to convince Jurors.

    Better reinstate “Beyond a reasonable doubt” Perhaps Justice will be better served. Good wishes to our new D A

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  15. Jill is real and forthright about the daunting task she faces with a reduced budget and thousands of cases to handle. She doesn’t spin it. She won’t be out politicking or playing vigilante with anti-gang groups or neighborhood coalitions like her predecessor—she’ll be really working, really overseeing her deputy DAs and really trying cases.

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  16. The Truth says:

    Lets just hope all the decorating is done, and all the pictures hung, by the time Kody Quinn Williams killer is arrested.

    The Truth
    http://justiceforkodywilliams.blogspot.com/

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  17. In the very early days of Jill’s office she’s showing more transparency and integrity than in the last several years under Passalacqua. Calling in the Attorney General so promptly in the Cloverdale Hit and Run case restored a lot confidence in the office. She refrained from he said, she said, and didn’t go about trying to please all the stake-holders. The cronyism was with the last office—the very few people of her own that she’s hired are nil compared to Stephan’s good ‘ol boy network.

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