Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Judicial Elections: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 20
Rumors Are Rampant in Contest Between Two Prosecutors
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
Rumors abound concerning the contestants in the race for Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 20. They are Deputy District Attorneys Mary Ann Escalante and Wendy Segall, each of whom has a strong following. Segall attracts both glowing praise and harsh denigration.
Gossip and speculation involve the tattling on judges to the Commission on Judicial Performance—of Segall is suspected by some former pals, and which she denies—and Escalante’s alleged pirating of the list of Segall’s Facebook “friends.”
The posting of a neophyte deputy district’s attorney’s feet on Facebook with commentary that they were inappropriately clad in a courtroom is seen by detractors as reflecting pettiness and meanness on Segall’s part; others spot those same qualities on the part of those who bring the matter up in the context of a judicial race.
There are other rumors about each of the candidates of a personal nature that are unverified and are not discussed.
Candidates are normally profiled separately here. Individual profiles on Escalante and Segall will appear tomorrow. First comes a look at the candidates’ rift.
Two Former Friends Are Now Bitter Antagonists
Deputy District Attorneys Mary Ann Escalante and Wendy Segall were once friends. Today, they are bitter rivals for a Superior Court open seat.
For two years, they were classmates at San Diego State University; Segall transferred in her junior year to Boston University. They became reacquainted when Segall joined the District Attorney’s Office in 1995; Escalante had been there since 1988.
It’s widely said that there was a “falling out” between them. Not so, Escalante declares. She simply decided to “distance herself” from Segall, she says, explaining:
“I choose to surround myself with people that have similar integrity and character and trust and loyalty. I’m not saying anything disparaging about Ms. Segall, but I just didn’t agree with some tactics in some incidences.”
Ordinarily, the relations between two candidates would be an irrelevancy. But here, one candidate is saying, by necessary implication, that the other proved unworthy of continued friendship because she lacks “integrity and character and trust and loyalty.”
What did Segall do to warrant such scorn? Escalante won’t say, other than to indicate that her negative feelings toward Segall began with a photograph appearing on Facebook.
Photo of Shoes
A supporter of Segall says of her:
“Is she perfect? Certainly not. Should she have posted photos of someone’s shoes online? I don’t know....[S]he was commenting on whether sock shoes were appropriate court attire. I think the response was more virulent than the comment really deserved, and as soon as she realized she may have embarrassed the person whose feet were pictured, she apologized.”
Two critics of Segall note that the woman whose feet were featured on the website was a deputy district attorney. One asserts that she was pregnant and was allowed to wear the shoes—which were open-sided, resembling mocasins—as an “accommodation” to her condition. They both note that in response to the matter, the Office of District Attorney promulgated a “social media” policy.
Segall says of the 2012 posting:
“I regret having re-published a photograph of a co-worker’s shoes sent to me, as well as the comment ‘Is this court appropriate attire?’ There were far better ways for me to address this, outside of my Facebook page. I exercised a lapse in judgment and when pointed out to me, I immediately deleted the post and apologized. Fortunately, the co-worker was not identified nor offended. This 2012 event demonstrates the power of social media today, both positively and negatively.”
Complaint to CJP
Escalante’s irritation over the Facebook posting was but a preclude to what appears to be Escalante’s major source of disenchantment with Segall.
There is an impression on the part of several members of an all-female coterie that travelled together to various cities to celebrate birthdays—Cabo San Lucas, Boston, Chicago, New York and elsewhere—that Segall betrayed two judges in the pack by reporting them to the Commission on Judicial Performance.
In separate interviews at the MetNews office, the candidates were tight lipped.
“There’s a rumor she’s responsible for two judges being investigated,” Escalante confirmed, with reference to Segall. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Segall said of the CJP probe: “I was not behind it.” She acknowledged being questioned but would not disclose what was inquired, explaining that the commission staff “asked me not to talk about the investigation.”
She would only say: “I answered some questions to the best of my ability.”
Escalante would not even indicate whether she spoke with commission investigators, declaring:
“I prefer not to comment. Thank you. I appreciate it.”
It has been learned, however, that in June 2016, about 20 woman from Los Angeles—including deputy district attorneys, judges, and defense lawyers—were in New York City to celebrate the 50th birthday of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Olivia Rosales. Criminal defense lawyer Michael R. Balmer of Norwalk contacted the hotel and had a bottle of wine sent to each of four rooms. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lori Fournier was in a room with Segall and Rosales was in another room.
Four other judges were in the party but, according to what has been pieced together, Fournier and Rosales became the focus of a CJP investigation because they had allegedly not reported the gift of the bottles.
Balmer disclaims a recollection of what particular wine was sent, recounting that he provided the rooms with “whatever the hotel had.”
He says it was his intent that the “bunch of women” there would “share the wine.”
The lawyer disputes the notion that he had cases pending before the judges. He advises:
“Lori [Fournier] is in civil. I don’t do civil.”
He reports, with respect to Rosales, “I’ve had a stipulated continuance in front of her,” and that was it.
Balmer insists that Segall did make a complaint to CJP. His basis: “Deduction,” he says, based on her distinctive knowledge of what occurred.
As Segall has acknowledged, she applied in 2015 for appointment to the bench and the Governor’s Office did not send her name to the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (“JNE”). Balmer asserts that Segall is “vindictive” and wished to harm persons because of a lack of their support for her application, charging:
“Wendy Segall filed a complaint because she never made it to JNE and blamed everybody but herself.”
Balmer contends that “she’s been confronted” as to having reported the judges and “has never denied it.”
Segall did deny it in an earlier sit-down interview with the MetNews. In a phone conversation Saturday, she addressed Balmer’s statement, saying:
“I’ve denied it to anyone who’s asked.”
With the basic facts having been ascertained, Segall is not so reticent as before about discussing the matter. She relates that she knows Balmer sent a bottle “to our room,” doesn’t know about bottles supplied to other rooms, and has no idea as to the quality (hence cost) of the wine.
“I didn’t drink it,” Segall says. “I didn’t even look at it.”
The prosecutor is known to be a virtual tea-totaler.
“I did not file the complaint, but they all think I did,” she laments.
Segall Supporter’s Views
A member of the District Attorney’s Office, who is close to Segall, provides these insights, in an email:
“I know that Ms. Segall was contacted by the CJP for an interview. I know that Ms. Segall, at the time of the request for an interview, spoke to me and asked for my advice. She was puzzled about the subject matter and told me that she wondered what the CJP wanted to know from her. She told me then, and has repeatedly said she did not initiate a complaint to the CJP on the matter being investigated, or frankly on any other occasion. She said she would tell the truth, no matter what, but that she was uncomfortable walking into an interview, not knowing what the questions would be. She was interviewed, and spoke to me afterwards. She told me the investigators instructed her to keep the subject matter and questions confidential, and she certainly has done so with me.
“Knowing Ms. Segall as I have for many years, I am certain, based on all the circumstances though not through percipient knowledge, that she was not the initiator of the complaint, despite the adamant claims of others in the criminal justice community, including Ms. Escalante.”
Questioning whether it would matter if Segall had reported judges to the commission, the person says:
“What is more puzzling to me is the focus on WHO the initiator was, as opposed to focus on the CONDUCT being reported. It is sadly reminiscent of far too many criminal cases that I have seen in which the focus is on who ‘snitched’ rather than on the criminal conduct involved. Who reported it becomes more important than the conduct being reported. From my point of view, I would be more concerned about the conduct.”
Another knowledgeable person says:
“Ms. Escalante is certain that Ms. Segall was the one who reported them to the CJP. The allegations include allowing attorneys who appear regularly before them to pay for their drinks and dinners during the times they all have gone out as a group. I guess the New York trip was one of them. It’s my understanding though that these attorneys are the judges’ personal friends, which probably explains the blurring of the lines of propriety.”
The person adds:
“My two cents—I don’t know if Ms. Segall did report her two friends to the CJP. It seems to me that Ms. Escalante would go through all this trouble only if she’s certain of Ms. Segall’s ‘betrayal.’ However, it is rather troubling to me that she’s directing all this anger and vitriol at the “snitch,” and none at the alleged misconduct. It’s also disturbing to me that she would use running for judge to avenge her friends.
CJP Probe Broadened
The conduct in question, initially, was whether two judges had accepted bottles of wine without reporting the gift. However, the inquiry expanded.
The commission questioned whether Fournier had run afoul of ethical requirements by presiding over matters in which Escalante was the prosecutor without revealing to defense counsel that Escalante was her son’s godmother.
Escalante, like Segall, became willing to speak publicly, to an extent, once it became clear that there was awareness as to that aspect of the commission’s inquiry. In an email on Friday, she says:
“Judge Fournier took the bench occasionally for an absent judge in a courtroom [to] which I was assigned. Her purpose was to facilitate continuances, take negotiated pleas, in which she had no input, and to handle the Prop. 47 motions, in which defendants are seeking a reduction of a previous felony conviction to a misdemeanor. If their case meets the statutory requirements, it is granted. There is no discretion. It is a ‘housekeeping matter’ per se. She never handled any contested matters.
“Downey and Norwalk are close knit courthouses. The defense bar is well aware of Judge Fournier and my friendship and that we worked together in the DA’s Office for many years, in these same courthouses. Judge Fournier is very fair to all parties and is well respected by the defense bar. It was never an issue.”
Balmer agrees that among attorneys in that vicinage, “Everybody knows their relationship.”
Fournier says, in response to an inquiry—implying that the CJP’s inquiry has not ended:
“With respect, I have been advised I cannot comment on your questions.”
Suspicions have been raised that Escalante filed her declaration of intent to run for Office No. 20 two days after Segall so did purely out of spite. The contest has been labeled by some observers as a “grudge match” and by one prominent person, a “cat fight.”
“There is no grudge,” Escalante declares, terming the notion that she would go to the expense of mounting a campaign on that basis “very far-fetched.” She continues:
“Who would declare running for a judge out of a grudge? It’s very life-changing. It affects your family. It affects your work to run.”
With respect to her work, she makes mention that she has taken no time off to campaign.
When she went to the Registrar of Voters’ office on Feb. 8 to take out a declaration of intent to run, Escalante recounts, she was told there were but two open seats with only one candidate in it. In one race, there was Deputy District Attorney Alfred A. Coletta; in the other was Segall.
Escalante says she could not demonstrate experience superior to Coletta’s, but has achieved more as a prosecutor than Segall, explaining:
“I knew Alfred Coletta had been in the gang unit and I knew he had a lot of murders—and I have a lot of murders—so I could not distinguish myself from another hard core DA, but I knew Wendy Segall’s background. I knew she’s an expert in stalking. She’s great….She knows everything there is to know about stalking.
“I don’t think she’s ever tried a murder. I don’t think she’s ever tried a violent crime.”
“I did try a complex meth lab murder trial which resulted in published case law.”
She also notes she has tried eight other cases involving violent felonies, including an 18-count robbery case with gun allegations.
Segall says, pointedly:
“I’ve been full-time in the office for 23 years.”
Escalante returned to full-time status in 2015 after being on part-time for about a dozen years, in light of family matters. While working a partial week and since resuming full-time duties she has been in the Early Disposition Program, handling plea bargains.
Segall terms herself a “national expert” on methamphetamines, having lectured on the topic across the country. She handled high-profile stalking cases and is now assigned to the Healthcare Fraud Division.
On Feb. 10, Segall posted this message:
A prosecutor remarks:
“I do not know Mary Ann Escalante, in fact I have never even met her, not once. However, she did Facebook friend request me shortly into her judicial bid. I found this to be odd since I have never met her.”
Escalante (who does not use her husband’s surname) responds to Segall’s posting by saying:
“Ms. Segall’s allegations are completely false. I did not steal her Facebook contacts. My Facebook assistant friended people in the legal community. I am sure some of the request may have overlapped with her friend list by the commonality of the legal world. Since this is a false allegation, it’s shocking and irresponsible that she would defame someone like this without any proof what so ever.”
Segall says, with reference to the campaign in general:
“Even with the untruths being aimed against me by my opponent, it is still my intent to continue running a professional campaign worthy of a judicial officer.”
Copyright 2018, Metropolitan News Company