Thursday, February 12, 2004
Oki Opponent Charges ‘Not Qualified’ Rating Was a Product of ‘Corrupt’ County Bar Panel Process
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A prosecutor running against Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dan Oki yesterday attacked a County Bar panel which rated her “not qualified” for judicial office, saying the rating was “absurd” and “just goes to show how corrupt the County Bar is.”
Deputy District Attorney Hilary Rhonan, who is one of three candidates opposing Oki’s bid for reelection, accused the lawyer who chaired the subcommittee which initially interviewed her of dishonesty. At a subsequent interview, members of the full Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee attacked her integrity and then charged her with lacking judicial temperament when she vigorously defended herself, Rhonan said.
Rhonan said the subcommittee chairperson, Gigi Gordon, “lied to my face.” Gordon, a committee vice-chair, told Rhonan the fact the candidate claimed indigency in seeking to delay payment to the county for a ballot statement “was not a negative,” Rhonan explained.
But when Rhonan appeared before the full committee last month to appeal her tentative “not qualified” rating, “all they talked about was indigency,” the prosecutor said.
Rhonan conceded that the full committee may not be bound by opinions expressed by a subcommittee chair about the relevance of a particular issue, but went on to charge that Gordon has a personal reason for being biased against her.
“Her husband, Andy Stein, hates me because I beat him in trials when I was in Compton,” Rhonan said. Stein is a prominent criminal defense attorney and is also a member of the committee.
Stein declined comment and Gordon did not return a MetNews telephone call. Stein noted that committee rules bar members from publicly commenting on the ratings or the interview process.
Rhonan acknowledged she was angered when members of the full committee compared her conduct in claiming indigency to “that of the criminals I am prosecuting.” Rhonan prosecutes welfare fraud.
“They didn’t understand it was just part of the democratic process,” Rhonan declared. She has argued that the county Registrar-Recorder’s Office lacks standards for determining what constitutes “indigency” with respect to paying the $65,000 cost of a statement to be included in the ballot pamphlet.
Rhonan noted that a finding of indigency only allows a candidate to delay paying for the statement, not to obtain a free statement, and that she did not have the funds to pay for one at the time she made the claim.
The indigency claim was denied. County officials have said Rhonan did not submit required paperwork to support the claim.
The candidate has said she was unwilling to provide personal information that might become part of a public record and that the Registrar’s Office failed to return her phone calls.
Rhonan said yesterday she received a letter from the subcommittee indicating the indigency claim was not considered to be a negative factor in evaluating her. As a result, she was taken aback when questioned about it extensively, she said.
“I have to rely on what they tell me,” she said.
Rhonan also suggested that the committee is biased in favor of Oki and does not wish to see him successfully challenged.
The jurist, then Criminal Courts supervising judge, infuriated some prosecutors in May of last year when he ordered the downtown arraignment court to stop arraigning in-custody defendants at 4:30 on the Wednesday following a holiday weekend. Some defendants who were not arraigned were released, and one is accused of a subsequent murder.
The president of a prosecutors’ group placed an ad in a legal newspaper soliciting opposition to Oki and four other judges. But many judges and other members of the legal community have rallied behind Oki, either supporting his administrative decision or arguing a judge should not be challenged based on a single questionable action.
Oki has said he believed no defendants would actually be released, and that police would rearrest those who could not be arraigned.
The committee gave its highest rating—“well qualified”—to another of Oki’s opponents, Deputy District Attorney Marc Debbaudt. But Rhonan said that does not mean the County Bar panel is not angling to assure Oki’s reelection.
Noting that both Debbaudt and Oki’s third opponent, Encino attorney Eugene Salute, are male, she commented:
“I believe that they considered me, the female, to be the greatest threat.”
Some veteran observers of judicial elections believe that female prosecutors have been among the most formidable candidates in recent election cycles.
Rhonan said she was “very insulted” by the way the committee treated her.
“They treated me like I was a defendant,” she said, adding:
“The whole process just stinks. They are so corrupt and so obvious about their corruption—they don’t even make an effort to hide it.”
A Los Angeles County Bar Association spokesperson said yesterday that while the committee’s meeting Tuesday night, at which it heard a number of ratings appeals, was its final session, ratings are not expected to be made public until tomorrow at the earliest. The additional time is necessary to prepare the committee’s report and the letters that will be sent to the candidates, the spokesperson explained.
Those whose appeals were heard Tuesday included Deputy District Attorneys Pat Campbell and Daniel Feldstern, who are running against two others for the seat currently held by Judge Marcus Tucker; Deputy Attorney General Robert Henry, one of six candidates for the seat being vacated by Judge Rosemary Shumsky; and Salute. Henry said his interview began after 9 p.m., and Salute said he followed Henry and was the last person interviewed.
Henry has also complained about the committee’s procedures, claiming it has failed to follow its own rules requiring that candidates be advised of the reasons for ratings of less than “well qualified.”
Though tentatively rated “qualified,” Henry said, he was never confronted with any negative information about his own qualifications. Instead, he declared, he has received the impression that some members of the committee feel that career deputy attorneys general, who rarely have extensive trial experience, cannot be “well qualified” for judicial office.
Three other candidates yesterday made their ratings public for the first time.
Deputy District Attorney Daniel Bershin and retired Deputy District Attorney Herb Lapin, both of whom are seeking to unseat Judge David Wesley, said they have been rated “qualified.” Wesley was Criminal Courts assistant supervising judge at the time of the May incident and was also named in the ad that sought opposition to Oki.
Bershin said his rating was raised from “not qualified” to “qualified” after an appeal. Lapin said he chose not to challenge his “qualified” rating.
The third candidate running against Wesley is Los Angeles Police Dept. Sgt. Kevin Burke, who could not be reached yesterday.
Deputy District Attorney Larry Diamond said he received a “qualified” rating and chose not to appeal it. Diamond is one of three candidates seeking to replace Judge Nancy Brown, who retired last month.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company