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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Normal Rules Don't Apply in This Race

Incumbent accused of botching cases faces Libertarian who has spent time in prison.

October 18, 1998|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UKIAH — Here is the Mendocino County district attorney's race boiled down to its extremely odd essence:

On your right is incumbent Susan Massini, a conservative Republican pushing for a fourth term, who has been accused of bungling the highest-profile cases of her 12-year tenure, from the slaying of a sheriff's deputy to the prosecution of union activists.

On your not-quite left is challenger Norman L. Vroman, a Libertarian who spent nine months in federal prison for failing to file tax returns. A former judge and prosecutor who insists to this day that nowhere in the law does it say that he must file. Who was endorsed in the primary by both the National Rifle Assn. and the Green Party.

Both have their eye on the job as chief law enforcement officer in this stunning but quirky patch of Northern California. She wants to keep it; he wants to wrest it from her.

"Probably in 99.9% of all races in California, it would be unheard of for both candidates to have that sort of background," said former Mendocino County prosecutor David Eyster, who was fired by Massini two years ago and is a Vroman supporter.

Up here in the heart of marijuana-growing country, more than 100 miles north of San Francisco, they like to point out with mixed revulsion and pride that local goings-on have interested outsiders more than a few times in the past.

Charlie Manson's lady friends once made this region their home. So did Leonard Lake, the accomplice of alleged torture-murderer Charles Ng.

Richard Allen Davis, convicted in the infamous kidnap-murder of Polly Klaas, was arrested here in 1993. And the Peoples Temple was based in Mendocino County before cult leader Jim Jones and his 912 followers committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.

Residents like to quote former Dist. Atty. Duncan James, who had a simple explanation for what amounts to a Mendocino County weirdness cluster: "It's just a tank of gas away from the Bay Area."

It's also a place with more redwoods than people, a county nearly the size of Connecticut with only about 83,000 residents.

Politics here defy easy characterization, and the electorate, Vroman is betting, just might be swayed by a candidate with campaign literature that says things like this: "Norm's nonviolent personal protest against the IRS foretold the congressional investigation now underway."

But this genial 61-year-old with twin hearing aides, a Jimmy Stewart voice and a 37-year law career, insists that he is neither a lawbreaker nor a tax protester.

"I'm a great believer in the law," he said. "I did not break the law. I'm not a tax protester. I file my returns"--now--"I'm not a slow learner. I'm not going to beat my head against the wall."

Vroman was charged in 1991 with felony tax evasion and failure to file tax returns. He was acquitted in federal court in San Francisco of the harsher charge and found guilty of five misdemeanors. Sentenced to 17 months in federal prison, he served nine before he was released.

Concerns About Enforcing the Law

During the trial, he admitted that he did not file tax returns for more than a decade--including, his critics happily point out, several years during which he worked as a Mendocino County prosecutor with a salary paid by the taxpayers.

"That raises legitimate concerns that Vroman will selectively enforce the law or obey the law, if elected," said one written statement sent to all local papers in the area by former Mendocino County public defender Barry Melton.

It is "unbelievable that one can be a viable candidate for public office in Mendocino County and spend time in federal prison and have filed for bankruptcy twice," Melton said in an interview. "Susan is not my candidate of candidates, but she doesn't have anything like that in her record."

On handing down a federal prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Eugene Lynch noted that Vroman was a sophisticated public servant and not "some poor working person who doesn't understand the law."

"Here's a man who takes an oath, who is both a judge and a lawyer and he is also a district attorney," Lynch said during the sentencing. "He took an oath to obey the law. He has an obligation. He just can't go off in some half-cocked way and not file income taxes based on some unusual theory. . . . It seems to me, therefore, he has to go to jail."

And he did, at various federal penitentiaries in California and the West. The experience, Vroman said in screaming understatement, "gives me a perspective that no other district attorney in the state has--how the laws are applied and what happens after incarceration, what it feels like to walk through Los Angeles airport with belly chain and handcuffs."

To Massini, president-elect of the California District Attorneys Assn., Vroman's behavior is "not the best example that anyone could set if they promise to uphold the law," and his candidacy is proof that in a small town, "anyone can run."

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