The first indication that the candidate forum featuring incumbent Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell and challenger David Alkire would be contentious came with a large placard outside the board of supervisors’ chambers.
The board featured a series of articles published in 2011 by the Sacramento Bee that questioned Newell’s personal and financial ties to Gold Country Lenders.
The hard-money operation’s CEO, Phil Lester, and CFO, Susan Laferte, currently face multiple counts of fraud, criminal conspiracy and elder abuse filed by the California Attorney General’s Office.
The articles noted that Newell faced questions of impropriety in connection to the case, and an editorial in The Bee called for his resignation.
Alkire didn’t hesitate to refer to those articles and to suggest that Newell has proved to be an ineffective leader for Nevada County. For his part, Newell refuted any allegations of impropriety and suggested that Alkire was naive in his perceptions of what it takes to run the District Attorney’s office.
Questions were taken both from the audience and a media panel that included representatives from The Union, KVMR, YubaNet and KNCO.
The second part of Thursday’s forum featured the candidates for the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools, incumbent Holly Hermansen and challenger Paul Haas. The Union will print an article on that race in Saturday’s edition.
Some of the key answers:
On improving low morale in the District Attorney’s office:
Alkire: Through training, mentoring, guidance in a positive way. Leadership means more than simply issuing instructions. Every single DA in the past has gone to court and tried cases, except the incumbent.
Newell: I can assure you the administrative staff, the support staff, the investigators and attorneys are … skilled and devoted public servants who are happy in their jobs. Every group has malcontents. I knew when I started, there would have to be a culture change … it’s not a personality contest.
On the challenges of realignment:
Newell: Realignment is a critical component of our jobs. We have to be involved in developing processes and policies with other agencies. It’s an unprecedented change in the way we do business and sentence criminals — we have to keep them locally and reintegrate them. This is new, and we have to spend a lot of time figuring out strategies.
Alkire: Realignment has been in place for two and half years — it’s nothing new. This is principally the responsibility of probation and the sheriff’s department. … Why hasn’t change been done already? Frankly, the DA’s office has the responsibility in charging people. The real tough work is done by probation and the sheriff’s office. It’s a red herring to spend much time talking about this.
On what would disqualify their opponent from becoming District Attorney:
Newell: I would not care to speak on what disqualifies or qualified my opponent from being DA. My qualifications are proven. I work well with law enforcement and the CEO’s office, and the board of supervisors, especially when it comes to realignment. A person would be naïve if they think it’s just probation and the sheriff’s office. You have to throw your weight into that process to make sure it’s being done well.
Alkire: Disqualifies is a pretty strong word — but there is an elephant in the room. About three years ago, the Sacramento Bee did a substantial expose regarding the incumbent … with reference to the criminal investigation of hard-money lending practices in this county. I’m afraid if we’re going to talk about disqualification, that’s something voters are going to have to think about — it’s not a secret.
On the role of the District Attorney’s office in preventing a “revolving door” for criminal defendants in the court system:
Newell: I have played a large role in creating community policing plans. I work with law enforcement to prosecute, but with a mind toward resolving the problem rather than just putting the person in jail, by offering them trade-offs in time for inpatient treatment or something proactive. The revolving door will continue to be more important because of realignment. We have to stay vigilant, we need to recognize those persons in asking for higher bail amounts, looking for strategies to keep them incarcerated. But also look for alternative methods to divert them out of the system.
Alkire: It’s absolutely crucial. It’s fundamentally and primarily the responsibility of the DA’s office to identify and target those defendants. In a recent The Union article, the suggestion was made that it is the judge’s fault. That’s not true at all. The incumbent has had over seven years to deal with this problem and this has not happened. It will if I’m elected. There are ways to generate information, so when the jail gets a new arrestee, the jailer should be able to know immediately if that person has gone through the system repeatedly in the last few months. It’s the job of the deputy district attorney to put that information in front of the judge. It’s the DA’s office that gathers this information together and makes it available to the jail and to the judge at time of bail setting.
Newell used his closing statements to address what he said were some of the untruths that were put forth. While the Gold Country Lenders case is ongoing, he said that this was the only opportunity he has had in seven years to recuse himself from a case — and that he did so as soon as it was brought to his attention.
He also sought to paint Alkire’s repeated assertions that he would prosecute cases as inessential and an outdated notion of what a district attorney’s role should be, pointing out that Sheriff Keith Royal doesn’t conduct traffic stops.
“When I took office, my trial days were over,” Newell said. “My work is now in the boardroom, to watch over your tax dollars.”
Alkire took one last opportunity to jab at Newell’s track record, saying, “Frankly, I think the incumbent did the best job he could do as DA. … The fact is, it wasn’t good enough, and I think the people of Nevada County deserve something better.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.