Trials and Tribulations
By Ron Donoho
(page 1 of 3)Five people—each convicted of murder in two oddly intertwined cases—were exonerated to varying degrees during one breathtaking week in late August. The cell-clearing was fallout from allegations of prosecutorial misconduct during two series of trials (and appeals) that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
The murder cases—of SDPD Officer Jerry Hartless in 1988 and Ocean Beach resident Dusty Harless in ’96—share a commonality beyond the close spelling of the victims’ last names. The prosecutor in each case was subsequently handpicked to become upper management in the administration of San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst.
Since Pfingst took office in ’94, there has been a 50 percent reduction in crime, child-support payment has increased 300 percent, and the welfare rolls have been cut in half, he says.
Does Pfingst deserve credit for these numbers? Yes, at least some. But word in the legal community—from deputy D.A.s to defense attorneys to judges—is that a cloud hangs over the Pfingst administration. Running unopposed, he was elected to a second term in 1998. But he’s losing allies and political clout at an alarming rate.
Why? Critics say he sends mixed messages, favors some deputies over others and often cares more about politics than prosecutions. Pfingst has fired two members of his gangs unit—a deputy and an investigator—for lying. “If you lie, you die,” says Pfingst, who granted an exclusive interview to San Diego Magazine. “It’s that simple. Integrity is the critical component. I tell every new hire what they say or do must be treated like gold, taken to a bank and put in a vault. Anything less is unacceptable. If you lie, you will be fired.”
Pfingst did not, however, fire two administrators whose widely debated actions culminated in the August prison purge. Keith Burt, who tried four gang members in the Hartless case and was once the number-three ranking member of Pfingst’s team, did take a voluntary demotion. Burt is currently the subject of an investigation that could lead to his being disbarred.
Peter Longanbach tried the Harless murder case. After he won a conviction of SDSU student David Genzler, Longanbach was promoted by Pfingst to head the D.A.’s economic fraud division. Longanbach resigned earlier this year. He is at the center of two investigations by the state attorney general: for prosecutorial misconduct in the courtroom, and for running a real estate business—at taxpayer expense—out of the D.A.’s office.
Further flattening the local wheels of justice are a pair of recent gender-discrimination lawsuits filed by two female deputy D.A.s. A $250,000 decision in favor of one of the women is now on appeal. That case, involving prosecutor Laura Akers, curiously dovetails into the Keith Burt saga. (More on that later.)
Complaints about a district attorney’s office—past, present, here or elsewhere—are not altogether uncommon. In San Diego, about 300 lawyers—each holding the title of deputy district attorney—prosecute individuals accused of heinous criminal activity. Rare is the convicted drug dealer, batterer, rapist or murderer who has something flattering to say about a D.A.
It would be one thing if inmates and their attorneys were doing all the griping. But a large number of complaints are coming from within the D.A.’s office. More than a dozen deputy D.A.s—most of whom say their jobs would be risked if they spoke for attribution—say office morale is at an all-time low.
Terri Perez, a part-time deputy D.A. in the downtown gangs prosecution unit, is one office member who has not felt a sinking of morale. “I hear about morale being low, and I get e-mails, but I don’t see it,” she says. “I think there is a vocal group of individuals that are mostly older. I don’t think the younger deputies are as involved with the morale issue.”
Others say younger deputies are dismayed they aren’t being promoted quickly enough. Depending on whom you ask, that’s either because there’s an oversupply of older, higher-ranking deputies or it’s due to quotas on how many in the office could hold the highest pay ranks.
One deputy who falls in the middle of the age spectrum says, “Anyone who thinks morale is good is either out of touch or covering for the administration. I’d like to know what parallel universe they’re living in.” This deputy reports that peers—young and old—are “embarrassed to admit where they work. At parties, they introduce themselves as lawyers, not as deputy D.A.s.”
According to a veteran deputy, “The universal opinion in the office is that Paul Pfingst has covered up for people because they are his ‘darlings.’” Another deputy says there is a feeling in the office that anyone who criticizes the administration will be ostracized. “You don’t complain, or bad things will happen to you,” the deputy says. “You get reassigned or you get transferred.”
Pfingst specifically denies shielding Longanbach and Burt because of personal friendships. Referring to Longanbach, Pfingst says, “I’ve never been to his house, and I wouldn’t be able to recognize his wife. And regardless of a rumor to the contrary, my wife has never met Peter Longanbach and has no financial relationship with him. It would be hard to find somebody I socialize with less than Peter... I have been to social events with Keith, and I know his wife, Brenda. Keith and I have been to lunch. But we’re not drinking buddies. And I couldn’t tell you who he supported in the  election.”
On complaints of low morale within the office, Pfingst says: “My sense is that the highest achievers have the highest morale, and your lowest achievers have the lowest morale. That’s true for most organizations. Generally, you design programs around your highest achievers. You just try and deal with your low achievers. If you give your high achievers the tools to work with, they can succeed and do a lot of great things.
“I work with some driven people. I work with some other people, too. That’s part of the deal. For every person who lets you down, you have 50 who exceed your expectations. For every naysayer and whiner, you have 100 who are coming to work every day to see how they can make a difference in this community.”
Still, many in the office say one key to a decline in morale was the unprecedented act of the state attorney general’s office serving a search warrant on the D.A.’s office—to obtain information in the Longanbach investigation.
No previous record could be found of the state attorney general ever serving a search warrant on a D.A.’s office. But Pfingst says the February 2000 search was not out of the ordinary. “People who don’t know this area would think it’s an extraordinary event,” he says. “It’s not. The search warrant is a traditional device they use when searching a lawyer’s office.”
One member of Pfingst’s upper administration did take offense at being served a search warrant. “A number of people have expressed the sentiment that the office is demoralized,” says Dan Berglund, chief of the D.A.’s office of investigations. “Especially because of the search warrant. We’re in law enforcement—we’re not used to being on the other side of the door.
“I disagree that the search warrant had to be done in the manner it took place. Nobody here would have destroyed records or case files. It was distasteful because [the state attorney general’s office] had teams on each floor, beating on doors. It made you wonder what their opinion of our office is... They seem to lack trust in our office.”
Gary Schons, head of the San Diego office for the state attorney general, says a search warrant was a necessary step given the circumstances, but was nonetheless “distasteful” and was “a grave decision.”
When Peter Longanbach resigned his position as chief of the economic fraud division in the D.A.’s office, a press release was issued. Dated March 3, 2000, it quotes Longanbach as saying, “It is with mixed emotions that I leave this fine office, and many friends who work so hard to protect the people of this county...”
The press release goes on to say, “Longanbach has decided to retire in order to spare his office, colleagues, family and friends further disruption and turmoil caused by allegations made against him earlier this year, allegations he adamantly denied.”
Other than Pfingst, Longanbach has had few supporters.
The state attorney general’s office is looking into allegations that Longanbach coached a witness to lie. That witness in the ’96 killing of Dusty Harless, Sky Flanders, who was Harless’ fiancée, later testified that Longanbach advised her to commit perjury. Flanders’ testimony was crucial in putting David Genzler behind bars.
Rebecca Harutunian was the deputy D.A. originally assigned to retry the Genzler case. Harutunian later testified that Flanders and a D.A. investigator told her Longanbach coached Flanders to withhold information. Harutunian also testified that she met with resistance from superiors when she began the legal process of bringing this information to light.
An appellate court recently disagreed with the second-degree murder conviction in Genzler’s first trial. He received a lower sentence of involuntary manslaughter in August. With time served, it’s expected Genzler—who’s been out of jail since July 1999—will not be put back behind bars.