By David M. Greenwald
Under pressure to come clean to the Attorney General or face the loss of state funding, the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) acknowledged in a letter Friday that they had misused even more funds than originally believed and called on the office to further investigate wrongdoing by the DA’s Association.
In January it was learned that the CDAA during times of cash flow shortfalls used “contributions received associated with environmental and worker safety settlements for general fund expenditures during periods when CDAA experienced cash flow shortfalls.”
These expenditures were not related to either environmental or worker safety purposes.
“CDAA has reportedly used environmental and worker safety funds in this way since approximately 2007,” the audit notes, and the total amount owed is nearly $3 million. Furthermore, the audit finds, “CDAA’s expenses began to exceed revenues in fiscal year 2009.”
As a letter from the CDAA acknowledged: “While the audit found no evidence of intentional malfeasance, it did identify a pattern that violated best practices and accepted accounting standards for restricted purpose funds.”
Instead, he offered a surprise.
“I write on behalf of the Board of Directors for the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) to formally request an investigation by your office into the unauthorized transfer and expenditure of asset forfeiture and high-tech funds by former staff members at the Association,” Totten wrote.
According to Totten, CDAA receives one percent of the funds forfeited under California’s Asset Forfeiture Law.
This provision requires that the funds be used “for the exclusive purpose of providing a statewide program of education and training for prosecutors and law enforcement officers in ethics and the proper use of laws permitting the seizure and forfeiture of assets under this chapter.”
However, Totten acknowledged in the letter “the internal reports noted above disclose the following unauthorized and improper use of these funds by Association staff.”
This includes about $1.26 million in asset forfeiture funds which have been transferred to and used for CDAA general fund purposes. About $1 million of that occurred between 2015-2020.
Totten further acknowledged, “During a four-year period, 2016–2020, asset forfeiture funds were placed directly into the general fund without an initial deposit into the asset forfeiture account.”
He added, “Use of these funds in this manner is contrary to the statutory restrictions contained in Health and Safety Code section 11489(b)(2)(D).”
Totten further wrote, “Additionally, while I am still reviewing association finances, it appears that funds the Association receives for high tech training through a memorandum of agreement with the Marin County District Attorney’s Office may have been similarly affected.”
He continued: “A preliminary review suggests that an estimated $406,984 in high-tech funds governed by Penal Code section 13848.4 have been improperly transferred and utilized for general fund purposes.”
Gregory Totten expressed concern for these practicing, saying, “It is very troubling that former staff members appear to have prepared and submitted reports to the Association’s independent, annual auditor and the Board of Directors that did not disclose these accounting practices.
“The Board and I ordered these practices to immediately cease and implemented appropriate safeguards to prevent any similar future actions,” he wrote.
“No one is more angry and disappointed than the Board and myself that these actions occurred. A satisfactory resolution is our highest priority, and we are committed to restoring these funds,” Totten added.
The letter comes about six weeks after the initial audit was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. It also comes as the CDAA has faced pushback from criminal justice reformers, complaining about their long standing support for “tough-on-crime” practices and opposition to criminal justice reform.
“CDAA continues to be a member organization solely for those willing to toe the ‘tough on crime’ line,” LA DA George Gascón said in his announcement that he was “resigning” from the organization. “For the rest of us, it is a place that fails to support us, our communities, or the pursuit of justice.”
In the letter in which he cited the all-white board of the CDAA, Gascón singled out the hypocrisy of the audit.
“Ultimately, CDAA cannot claim a commitment to prosecutorial excellence while misappropriating millions of public dollars, ignoring the will of the voters, and fighting reforms that evidence clearly indicates will enhance safety, racial equity, and save scarce taxpayer resources,” Gascón wrote.
In an op-ed from newly-elected State Senator Sydney Kamlager published February 1, she noted, “The CDAA’s misconduct is simply more evidence that the association has no interest in promoting justice, as its mission states.”
She writes, “Instead, it lobbies to subvert the will of the voters, attacks progressive prosecutors, keeps in place the tough-on-crime laws of the past, and, evidently, misappropriates public funds to do so. It’s past time that the state steps up and holds the group accountable for these actions.”
The letter from Totten comes in response to a March 4 letter from Acting Chief Assistant Attorney General Edward Ochoa. In that letter, Ochoa warned that the AG’s office would stop funding the environment settlements until the CDAA can demonstrate that it has changed it practices.
“These actions by CDAA, an organization composed of prosecutors, and which has served a critical role in providing training to the law-enforcement community, only serve to undermine the public’s trust in our governmental officials and institutions,” Ochoa wrote.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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