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Prosecutor Makes Lateral Job Move to South Pacific

November 24, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County prosecutor Richard Brungard next week begins what, at first, might seem the perfect fantasy job.

After 8 years as a deputy district attorney here, Brungard will shed his coat and tie for the tropical togs of Palau, a group of about 200 tiny South Pacific islands where he will work as chief criminal prosecutor for 2 years.

But this is no cushy junket to an exotic outpost. And Palau, despite its lush beauty and crystal-clear waters, is no Club Med.

In the past 3 years, this island group in Micronesia has been convulsed by the assassination of one president, the suicide of another, heroin trafficking, firebombings, charges of government corruption and a debt that, in per capita terms, is one of the largest in the world.

This tale of paradise lost is aggravated by Palau's cloudy political status. Of the more than 2,000 islands scattered in the Pacific that came under United States trusteeship at the end of World War II, Palau is the only group that has yet to become a self-governing state.

Seven times, Palau's 14,000 residents, who live on six islands, have been asked to approve a compact that would grant the islands independence and millions in economic aid in exchange for allowing U.S. nuclear battleships to dock there. Each time the compact has fallen short of the necessary 75% majority by just a few percentage points.

None of which deters the 50-year-old Brungard, who lives on a yacht in the Channel Islands Harbor, surfs the Ventura coast and on various occasions has left the legal profession behind for years at a time to sail his boat from one steamy Latin American port to another.

"I'm certainly not going there just to lie on a hammock and watch sunsets," he said. "I'm looking for a situation that is dynamic, complex and challenging . . . Frankly, I think I'd be crazy not to take it."

The fit and ruggedly handsome Brungard, who passed through the South Pacific 30 years ago while working on a Norwegian freighter, got the job after making a call to the Palau attorney general's office on the off chance that there might be an opening.

There was, and Brungard eagerly accepted an offer to join the other 100 or so Americans, most of whom are Peace Corps volunteers who provide technical or professional aid to the islanders, on Palau.

"I'm absolutely intrigued by the idea of practicing my profession in a foreign culture," he said. "I imagine that it's sort of like our old Wild West out there."

Palau Atty. Gen. Philip D. Isaac, the man who hired Brungard as his sole deputy, said Brungard will face many of the same criminal problems that plague the United States, including about four homicides a year, frequent assaults and drug abuse.

Laws and punishments are similar to those of the United States, he said, and English is the language of the courts, although Palauans among themselves speak a Malaysian-influenced dialect.

"Palau is trying to play catch-up to the rest of the world in a hurry," Isaac said in a telephone interview. "In a sense, they're going through a compressed cultural shock."

Part of the difficulty lies in an ages-old feud between Palau's 16 traditional clans, each of which is run by a chief who rules by divine right. The clans are equally divided between two kingdoms, the Ibedul and the Reklai, who have fought over just about everything since the 8th Century.

"Society, culture--everything is divided into East against West, North against South," former President Lazarus Salii, who killed himself last August, once said.

Palau, which is about 600 miles east of the Philippines, formed its own government in 1979 with the permission of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the State Department. It receives $15 million a year, or 95% of its budget, from the United States. Under the proposed compact, the United States would double that figure during the next 15 years.

The extra revenue could help bail out Palau, which owes more than $45 million to creditors, mostly as the result of an expensive power plant project begun in 1983. The U.S. General Accounting Office is investigating charges that about $1 million in "questionable payments" were made to Palauan officials by the London firm that built the plant.

"I think Palau has experienced so much hardship and so much tragedy in recent years that there is reason to be hopeful that they've finally hit bottom and can start rebuilding," said Howard L. Hills, legal counsel in the U.S. State Department's office of freely associated states. "If your deputy district attorney can make a contribution, that would be a very worthwhile thing for him to do."

That's just the kind of challenge that appeals to Brungard. Not your stereotypical strait-laced attorney, he has hitchhiked across Europe, worked on a Canadian cattle ranch, washed dishes on a trawler in the Mediterranean, sailed a 40-foot sloop to Mexico and written a book about learning to surf at age 45.

"All of which just whetted my appetite a little more," he said.

It didn't take much to convince him to leave behind drunk-driving and consumer-fraud cases for the intrigue of a politically tumultuous island where temperatures average 80 degrees and relative humidity averages about 80%.

He hopes that his girlfriend and their 4-year-old daughter, as well as two other daughters from a previous marriage, will join him shortly.

"It almost doesn't matter to me whether I go out there and hate it or love it," he said. "It's when you don't go and wonder what it would've been like that you can find yourself regretting things for the rest of your life."

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